Experimental Criticism / Questionnaire Answers / Samuel R Delany

Illustration by Fran_kie

This cluster on “experimental criticism” grew out of a graduate seminar on this topic that took place at Harvard in the fall of 2021. All the essay contributions to the cluster bear some relation to the course, whether as revisions to participants’ final projects or as pursuits of experimental practices explored and initiated there. To register the collaborative pedagogic origins of this project, in lieu of a typical introduction, we have provided an annotated syllabus, with snapshots of participants’ reflections on the semester’s readings and discussions footnoted at the bottom of the page. You are invited to click on any of the numbered footnotes scattered throughout the syllabus to jump to a specific annotation. In addition to offering a window into our individual responses to the course readings, we hope that the annotations provide you with a collective context for the essays to follow.

Within the cluster, you will find experimentation that takes many forms: Yoojung Chun’s choose-your-own-adventure rumination on the constancy of parental grief, as depicted by the intersections between the art video game “That Dragon, Cancer” and the 14-century Middle English poem Pearl; Marie Ungar’s investigation of the category of “cringe,” what it might look like if Susan Sontag and Erving Goffman joined forces; Elinor Hitt’s encounter with the “kinesthetic empathy” inspired by the choreography of Blondell Cummings; William Martin’s essay/fiction hybrid, describing a senior named Dexter’s spectral encounter with the wisdom of Charles Waddell Chesnutt in his university’s archive; Harry Hall’s poignant parody of academese, presented in the form of a futuristic academic lecture on the film Call Me By Your Name, in a 2052 edited volume; Sam Bozoukov’s paratactic account of learning to listen to literature—and to life’s unpredictable lessons—through Milton.

Accompanying our cluster as a special feature is a questionnaire that was sent to several of the leading author-critics on our syllabus, requesting their thoughts on the status of disciplinary experiment today. The responses we received, from Charles Bernstein, Samuel R Delany, Wai Chee Dimock, Eric Hayot, Emily Ogden, and Paul Saint-Amour, are a trove of useful references, reflections, examples, and qualifications.

The response sent by Samuel R Delany is below.

—Beth Blum

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What does “experimental criticism” mean to you?

I don’t really know. I’ve written a few pieces that might fall under that rubric, “On the Unspeakable” is the one; but, as someone who has probably written and published at least as much nonfiction as fiction, creativity is not the first thing I think about in either genre. When I think about principles, I think of the one I borrowed from Blanch McCreary Boyd, at an Outright Conference in Boston, in 1995 (“Write as simply as you can for the smartest person you can imagine”), and put at the head of an essay called “Some Notes for the Intermediate for Advanced Creative Writing Student.” It’s in my book About Writing, which is still in print and might be worth looking at…

If you don’t think experiment precludes advice and emulation, then what are the qualities of experimental writing you admire, and what are the qualities that can imperil it?

About Writing includes a chapter on “Experimental Writing,” which, in the form of a lengthy written interview with Lance Olsen, goes over some five experimental texts by three writers, which I like, and in some detail tells why. Needless to say, I hope it’s informative, but I don’t know if it has anything to say about creativity or not. At age 80, when many people might say I don’t have very much of it anymore, often I see people who talk about it as not saying anything of too much interest, though it’s quite possible that’s just sour grapes by an old fellow who, a few years ago, people thought had some…

Why don’t we grant literary criticism the same aesthetic latitude as our literary objects? Is this distinction, in your view, a good thing?

I would say I always have. I would say that the fact that you’re actually indulging in such questions is the sign that you do too.

What does the spread of online public writing—and with it the resurgence of essayism—mean for the distinction between the personal and professional, literature and criticism?

Since I’m retired and more or less a borderline professional at this point, I’ve never even considered “online public writing” as a separate category apart from what I think of as critical thought in general.

In your experience, can institutional context operate as a productive experimental constraint? At what point does experiment become conventional? Can conventionality produce experiment?

My experience may not be relevant, but my first response to the question is that most institutions basically produce well-intentioned, high-grade nonsense, most of the time. And nonsense tends to be conservative…

We won’t ask, as they did in the 1929 final issue of the Little Review modernist magazine that inspired this questionnaire, “why do you go on living?” (However, if you wish to answer that question, we would be most interested!). A slightly less intimate question might be: why do you go on being a literary scholar? Or, if you prefer, what do you see on the horizon for future scholarly experimentation in the discipline?

Decades ago, I read The Little Review’s questionnaire, but if you hadn’t nudged me in the ribs, however, with your elbow, I never would have thought of it here. I end then with a Wiki quote that seems relevant, and I’ve always felt a lot of sympathy with Emma Goldman: And I will let you decide from my answers how you think I feel about your questions. You certainly seem like a good peson, but—as I said—I don’t spend that much time thinking of creativity as more than a way to tame much of the work that artists have to do to make art: “Emma Goldman, for example, justified her delayed response by complaining that the questions themselves bored her. She writes, ‘I have not written sooner because I find the questions really terribly uninteresting,’ and continues that ‘since the questions are so ordinary the replies can be naught else.'” Even Anderson and Heap agreed that the questions were unproductive: Anderson ended the magazine’s run with an editorial in the 1929 issue in which she stated in reference to the questionnaire that “even the artist doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

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This is part of the cluster Experimental Criticism. Read the other posts here.

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