Sci-Fi Hero Samuel Delany’s Outsider Art

The artistically eclectic author talks about his fiction, the importance of a visual imagination, and how hard it is to get decent artwork on a book jacket.

Photo Illustration The Daily Beast

At 74, Samuel R. Delany, the Grand Old Man of polymorphously perverse science fiction, looks like a louche Kris Kringle: luxuriant white beard, impressive paunch, multiply pierced ear, New York boho uniform of black jeans and black button-down shirt.

It’s easy to forget that this is the man who wrote Hogg (1995), a novel of such emetic depravity it makes the novelist Dennis Cooper, a career transgressive, look like Garrison Keillor. Pedophilic rape, murder, rape, incest, rape, golden showers, rape, coprophilia, rape, necrophilia, rape, and on and on, for 270 pages: the reader reviews, on Goodreads, constitute a kind of collective gag reflex, mingled with moral horror and dazed fascination. What is this thing? A pitch-black satire of masculinity in America? A deadpan send-up of conservative fears of a queer planet? A philosophical exercise, equal parts Derrida and de Sade, in the tactical use of disgust—that most irreducibly, irresistibly visceral of emotions—to blow up our critical strategies and ideological systems for imposing meaning on a text? And why did the nice man with the adorable beard write such a nasty book?

Delany is, in many ways, a walking paradox. He’s African-American, yet so light-skinned he’s often mistaken for white. He’s gay, yet spent 14 years married to a woman, the mother of his daughter. He’s a Hugo- and Nebula Award-winning pillar of “literary” science fiction, an oxymoronic term the New Yorker crowd would have dismissed, until very recently, as pulp in a starched collar. He dropped out of college at 19 yet makes fluent use, in his essays, of ideas drawn from Barthes, Baudrillard, Derrida, and Donna Haraway, and ended up a full professor at Temple University, where he taught in the MFA Creative Writing Program and English Department until retiring last year. He crafts sentences that are as beautifully turned as Victorian finials, and has given us bejeweled phrases like “Starboard Wine” and “Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand” and “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones,” yet has struggled, his whole writing life, with dyslexia.

Perhaps this last detail accounts for what might be called his literary atomism—an almost obsessive attention to the sentence as prose’s fundamental unit, coupled with a semiotician’s understanding of how cultural discourses structure our understanding of what a sentence means. Which brings us to another paradox: Delany is well-versed in postmodern literary theory but is, at heart, an old-school close reader in the Northrop Frye, T.S. Eliot, New Criticism sense of the term.

“I’m forever delighted, then delighted all over, at the things sentences can trip and trick you into saying, into seeing,” he says, in his interview-cum-essay The Semiology of Silence. “I’m astonished—just plain tickled!—at the sharp turns and tiny tremors they can whip your thoughts across. I’m entranced by their lollop and flow, their prickles and points. Poetry is made of words, Mallarmé told us a hundred years back. But I write prose. And prose is made of sentences.”

Of course, the most paradoxical thing about Delany is that he’s done some of his deepest thinking within the genre conventions of science fiction, a genre not known, when he published his first novel (The Jewels of Aptor, in 1962), for its hospitality to black men, let alone gay ones. Undaunted, he pushed the envelope of speculative fiction and fantasy, improvising on the identity politics of race, ethnicity, sex, gender, and class in sprawling, richly imagined novels that are as sensual as they are philosophical.

His “Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” (in Flight from Nevèrÿon, 1984), was the first fictional work about the AIDS epidemic published by a major house, Bantam. B. Dalton Books, then the biggest bookseller in the nation, refused to stock it because of its gay themes. His million-selling epic, Dhalgren (1975), refracts questions about mixed-race consciousness and masculinity through the adventures of an amnesiac, possibly schizophrenic drifter, born of a Native American mother, who falls in with a street gang of teenaged boys. Set in a magical-realist metropolis where the sun has ballooned to gargantuan size and time stretches and shrinks, it’s a brain-bending read; Delany counterbalances metanarrative mind games and enough literary allusions to give Joyce a run for his money with graphic sexual interludes—gay, straight, and every which way. In Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), he considers love, sex, and genderqueer identity among triple-sexed aliens whose relationships are monogamous, polyamorous, anonymous, cross-species, or any combination thereof.

Yet—again, paradoxically—Delany insists that his fiction, so often viewed through the lens of identity politics, is among other things an interrogation of the philosophical props that underpin our assumptions about identity. “Identity is not an essentialist nugget at the center of things,” he told an interviewer. “It’s a category to put things in. You can’t think without categories; but you want categories that are complex enough that whatever is inside them is always questioning its own boundaries.”

As part of this continuing series of essays on the art (and cultural significance) of the book cover, I interviewed Delany by e-mail about the covers of his books, as well as the book covers in his life.

Given your visual imagination, I imagine you’re one of those readers for whom the right book jacket can serve as a portal to other worlds, a cosmic wormhole into alternate realities on the other side of the cover. Have any covers, SF or otherwise, had that sort of effect on you?

I don’t think I ever had a cover that stayed in the memory, or that clung more tenaciously to the imagination, than the black-and-white photographic cover of the New Directions edition of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood. I used to like the Frazetta covers for the Conan novels, and his more pastel and sharply drawn covers for the Tarzan novels that Lancer brought back into print in the ’60s. Once, I was a fan (too strong a word, but I liked her covers and would pick them up off the racks to look at them) of Rowena Morrill—Saddam Hussein’s favorite American artist, it turned out. She did three of my Return to Nevèrÿon covers for Bantam. Things that were honestly sexy I always thought were good, and that was certainly Rowena.

It’s the rare cover that adds new narrative levels to a book, layers of meaning that exist in mind of the beholder and thus aren’t really “there” (though of course they are). Barbara Remington’s triptych for the Ballantine mass-market edition of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a case in point. Admittedly, her paintings have little to do with the novels, but they’re powerfully evocative nonetheless. To encounter them in the heyday of Hobbit-mania, as I did in the late ’60s and early ’70s, was to understand that a book cover could be a doorway to immersive fantasy—the pulp progenitor of virtual reality.

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For me, the best covers that Tolkien ever had in this country were the jackets the hardcover British edition [by George Allen and Unwin] was originally published with. They were one- or two-color jackets, and they represented the slightly old-fashioned, slightly fey sensibility behind them pretty well.

I got The Hobbit as a junior in high school—this was in the ’50s. And while the book got good press, the success was undercut by the notion of it being a kid’s book. A year later, when the Lord of the Rings’ three volumes came out—I remember they had placeholder ribbons—they didn’t do well at all commercially. (A high school friend loaned them to me, and a few months later, after reading them, I gave them back.) The success only happened later, when Ballantine’s mass-market edition started the paperback swell in popularity that continues to this day.

My feelings about the books are unconventional. I thought The Hobbit was a good book. I didn’t think it was great, though, or even very good. It’s just good. It keeps you reading, then it’s over. I don’t carry around with me, say, Michael Moorcock’s loathing of its reactionary and mindlessly racist glorification of the military’s ability to kill Orcs, which aren’t as interesting as zombies, old- or new-fashioned. A couple of people have called The Lord of Rings “Wagner without the music.” Tolkien charms with a twee vision of paradise (which is fine if it charms you, and pathetic if it doesn’t) and an equally overinflated vision of hell as a military betrayal of one race by another, over and over and over.

As far as the paperback book covers to both the [unauthorized Ace edition, with cover art by Jack Gaughan] and the Ballantine edition are concerned, I think they range from atrocious to laughable. None of them give me any sort of nostalgic charge.

Can you offer some general thoughts on the book cover—as sales tool, commercial art form, stimulus to free-associated fantasy, or whatever?

I’ve always tried to heed the admonition, “never judge a book by its cover,” which for me is a warning against capitalist/consumerist packaging in general. The only thing you can judge by its packing is the packaging itself—and even then, you should be on your guard.

Take the cover of my short novel, Phallos, first published by Bamberger Books in 2004 and then reprinted in an “enhanced and revised edition” in 2013 by Wesleyan University Press: There’s a lot of information in that cover, in both versions, but especially in the 2013 one. The book is about a novel within a novel, and the cover shows a book cover within a book cover. Like many of my favorites among my own books, the initial cover was done as a pretty close collaboration between my friend, the artist John Del Gaizo, and myself. John is a wonderfully responsive artist, and for many years he had a room in the back of my and my life-partner Dennis’s apartment in New York City. That made it very easy to work together. Whenever we did, John would say he tried to make “his ego vanish”—and he almost succeeded.

But what would move in to displace it was a tremendous amount of illustrative talent and computer savvy. John did the Bamberger cover. The witty and thematically informative “revised and enhanced version” is basically John’s cover from the Bamberger edition with a little revision of the title lettering for legibility; it was carried out in much the same spirit by the Wesleyan market manager in those years, Leslie Starr. I think it’s a cover you can trust; what it tells you about the book is largely true.

When I was in my early twenties, either a publisher’s art director or perhaps an editor—possibly Don Wollheim or Terry Carr—voiced a principle that described a lot of what I liked in book covers in general: “Science fiction fans like covers that invite you to live in the book.”

As soon as I heard it, I realized it was a reasonable description of me, as a reader of mass-market and trade paperbacks—science fiction or not—and as a lover of illustration and art in general.

What SF covers have “invited you to live in the book,” besides those you’ve mentioned?

The first I ever examined carefully was one that became the subject of a talk I gave on book covers back in the late ’60s at a Lunacon SF Convention. It showed a sea with a boat in the distance. But fog obscured the horizon so you couldn’t tell where the sea ended and the sky began. You kept looking again and again, trying to figure it out. The sky was lighter, the sea was grayer, but there was no demarcation between. It was an effective cover, because it made you look and look back and become involved in trying to solve a problem. And if you had actually stood on a shore or a dock and seen the effect out on the foggy water (and I had), you recognized it as something you’d experienced before, which made the cover that much more effective … That’s what I mean by living in the illustration. The artwork suggests skillfully an ambiguity that you recognize from life.

I’m a highly theoretical guy: I tend to be seduced by covers that obey certain theories. My favorite principle is, if the person who makes the cover has read the book, or has read part of it, you have a higher likelihood of having a good cover. My next favorite is, if the person who chooses the book cover or the artwork for the cover has read the book, you have a higher likelihood of the cover turning out well. (It’s a slightly weaker version of the first.) Here’s another: if the artist and/or the person choosing the cover has only worked from a synopsis, and no one in the process has read the book itself, you have a far higher likelihood of having a bad or inappropriate cover: Someone in the cover-making/cover-choosing process has to know the book itself, not just a synopsis of it.

Put that way, it seems self-evident. But it’s particularly important for SF. Sure, you can get something that’s interesting by chance. But that’s rare. Take, for example, the Bob Pepper cover for the 1973 NAL edition of my SF story collection Driftglass. It shows a long-haired man sitting cross-legged, with what looks like the collar of a deep-sea diving helmet around his neck. I’m pretty sure that the picture of the man came from a synopsis of the title story, and that the images embedded in the man’s stomach (one of which is a bluish girl with an eye-patch) derive from another synopsis, though of which story I can’t fathom.

I think it’s a painting with enough skill in its execution to catch the eye. But I don’t think it’s a good book cover in general, and it’s not a good science fiction book cover in particular. One assumes that the story it’s supposed to be illustrating is the title story, in which the main character has been badly mutilated. At a certain point, as you begin to recognize the characters from Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest. Prospero is gone from his cell, and Caliban has taken it over. Caliban and Ariel are both sea creatures, more than they are human. Caliban is deeply wounded, and his wound keeps him tied to the landscape where he was maimed. It’s a story in which history repeats itself. It’s also a story about the older generation being displaced by a younger one.

That’s a lot to put into a cover illustration. But what bothers me—and, yes, offends me—about it is that once you’ve read the story, it’s immediately clear that Pepper did not read the story, and at best worked from a very skimpy synopsis. The images of the door and the child with the eye-patch don’t even pretend to reflect anything in the tale. It’s just another cover painting by another artist who never got a chance to respond directly to the text.

One cover that did work well, I thought, was the cover that John Del Gaizo and I did for the Wesleyan 1998 reprint of my 1967 novel The Einstein Intersection, which was part of that early spate of Wesleyan reprints. Years ago, I’d decided someday I was going to have the drawing Aubrey Beardsley did for Act II of Siegfried on the cover of my book. John and I worked hard on the four-color photomontage of Hubble images of stars to create the frame.

The subtle four-color starscape framing the precise, black-and—white, Late-Victorian Beardsley is very effective when you walk up to it on a bookstore rack. John and I put it together from enhanced Hubble images and worked on it for a week. It contains an amazing amount of energy, in my opinion, because of that. (It’s three different photos arranged to suggest a single stretch of nebula somewhere in the universe.) The way the colors themselves are, in effect, all but thrown away is another source of the image’s meaning. When you first look at it, you’re not even sure that the frame is in color, until it settles on the eye a while.

The first covers that really took hold of the principles I mentioned earlier, however, are the ones for the Wesleyan revivals of Return to Nevèrÿon. They’re black with gold lettering, each with a photographic strip of a landscape down the right-hand side, a different landscape with a different color predominating on each volume. I suggested they find a lakeside scene for first, rocks on a mountain for the next, a seascape at sunset with an island in the distance for the third, and for number four an aerial view of an autumn forest landscape with a mountain in the distance—and damned if their art department didn’t come up with exactly what I’d asked for! Those covers say: These landscapes are almost America (and a hidden part of America, an idealized part of America, someplace on its margin or possibly hidden within), which is what they should say for this series of tales.

Can you think of any exceptions to your rules—instances where the illustrator clearly didn’t read the book but nonetheless produced a suitable, maybe even inspired image?

No, but Ed Emshwiller’s wonderfully surreal cover for The Towers of Toron, the second volume of my Fall of the Towers trilogy, was probably the best on my first 10 books, even though he’d only read two chapters. (If I’d been fortunate enough to get him for all three, the triptych might well have constituted a minor SF cover art triumph.)

Clearly he’d read the first chapter or two until he found a scene with an illustratable moment—in this case, when the Duchess of Petra surprises the historian Rolth Catham by going invisible, after the ball where prime minister Chargil has been assassinated. (For 1962, that was too violent and bloody for a paperback cover on a genre volume assumed to be for adolescent boys.) Petra was an elegant woman, who—since at that moment she was just a dress and a cape, some evening gloves, an anklet, an armband, a tiara, and some earrings, all hanging over a pair of empty high-heeled shoes—he could make as sexy as you (assumed teen-age boy) or he (as the artist constructing the image with you, assumed teen-aged boy, in mind) wanted. And so he did.

This was an intelligent method—when used by a highly and technically skilled figurative artist. Three of four years later, I became friends with Ed and Carol—at least good enough friends for him to use me for a scene in his experimental film Image, Flesh, and Voice (1969), and to offer me a ride back from Milford, Pennsylvania after the shoot. While we were driving up, Ed confessed to me that he’d only read two chapters of my book, till he’d reached an image, and from then on it was the image that had occupied him—not my work. (He would often do one of these mass-market paperback covers a week, he told me, week in and week out.)

Can you elaborate on the adverse effects, on cover art, of working from a synopsis?

By the time Dhalgren’s cover [by Dean Ellis] won a design prize, in 1975, no cover artist, for SF or any other mass-market genre, was reading any book in order to come up with an illustration. They’d read a half- or a quarter-page synopsis by an editor—or by an art director who himself had read a three-page synopsis of the book. Synopses by their very nature obliterate the kind of specific information that makes science fiction, indeed any fiction, interesting.

What makes the Dhalgren cover work is the design and the idea—not the illustration. The big sun, the fragments of a city, but not the three men in the distance—who, once you’ve read the book, you’ll realize are from another book (if you look at them with a magnifying glass), as, indeed, are the towers on the horizon, which are specifically not the towers in Bellona. Nor could the sun pictured be the sun that rises and sets in Bellona… Only the juxtaposition of the three suggests it’s an “illustration” for the novel.

Today, “cover houses” (companies that design and print a small publishers’ covers for the year, which are then delivered in two batches—spring and fall, say) give the art director one shot, then one revision. And direct communication with the writer is forbidden—because we’re crazy (and by and large they’re right) and because most of us know nothing about art or design. Every once in a while, you get a writer like me who is actually interested in some of those topics, and isn’t entirely out to lunch: “Okay, now, in a very realistic style, I want you to show the entire universe, only down in one corner, you can see the earth, and on one spot of it you see an ordinary picket fence house, while thousands of miles away you have this Egyptian Pyramid, in the middle of which, surrounded on all sides by stone walls, a three-thousand-year-old monster is chained and …”

You’re not literally that involved in the art-directing of some of your covers?

Not like that, no.

I have no feeling that the cover of any book need slavishly follow the text of the story. But I do feel offended when the artist does something that’s flagrantly violated by the text and nobody feels that it’s worth doing anything about. To me, that’s a cover that says “fuck you” to the writer and tells the readers you really don’t care what they see on the book. It’s bad advertising for any product. I’m thinking of all the times I, or my one-time student the late Octavia Butler, had to endure brass-armored Nordic Viking women on the covers of novels that had Asian poets or black housewives as protagonists because there really were suits running around the company who deeply believed that anything else on the cover just wouldn’t sell.