Promiscuous Autobiography on Facebook: An Interview with Samuel R. Delany, Part II




SOMETIMES A MILLENNIAL SENSIBILITY takes hold of an éminence grise. 

In the photo to the side, writer and critic Samuel R. Delany poses for a candid portrait in his apartment building elevator as we head out for a walk across the park from the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Arts. Chip (as he is known to friends) is in the midst of putting his iPhone away, after taking a picture of me. On our short walk, Chip would take a couple dozen more photos, of passing buildings, people, and a small park where we sat in the sun on a cold day. Many of these photos Chip immediately posted, with commentary, to his Facebook page. 

In my previous interview with Chip Delany, published here last summer, the 77-year-old prize-winning writer (Nebula Award, Hugo Award, Stonewall Book Award…), shared fresh perspectives on his life and work, along with thoughts on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. In this second installment, Chip talks neither about the past nor the future; instead, he focuses on the present, especially his current work and what he calls his “promiscuous autobiographizing.” Here, the gregarious novelist and essayist of the Stonewall era reflects on his use of Facebook for his own purposes at a time when social media companies face increasing scrutiny for violations of their users’ privacy and security.

Often Chip talks about how Facebook has become his primary mode of writing in his late years. In this interview, Chip offers a glance into what he identifies as his social media addiction, while making a case for how his use of Facebook attempts to go against the grain. As a diary and photo album, Chip’s Facebook page serves as a chronological record that refreshes his weakening memory. At the same time, it also acts as his primary portal to the outside world, where he gets much of his news, talks with friends, and meets strangers. Except for short walks, rare visits to other parts of Philadelphia, or trips to give readings and talks, Chip is usually at home, reading, watching movies or television, talking with his partner, Dennis, working with his assistant, Bill, or playing host to a visiting friend. No matter what Chip might be doing, he documents the experience with his smartphone and posts the photos to his Facebook page along with prosaic reflections and his now signature digressions. His feed is at once a catalog of the mundane — his morning pot of oatmeal often makes an appearance — but also a space for his philosophical speculations on political and metaphysical issues.

Since Chip started writing on Facebook around 2008, he’s moved his home and belongings three times, and, two years ago, he sold his archive to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, to which he also donated the majority of his personal library for a tax write-off. With over 2,500 followers, Chip’s Facebook page has arguably come to represent his major late work, amounting to nearly 1,000 pages of writing. In recent years, Chip’s relationship with his Facebook page has become more self-reflective and future-oriented, as he considers ways he can preserve his work in both print and digital forms. At the conclusion of this interview, he gives a glimpse into his thoughts on what a science fiction writer’s Facebook posts might look like as “literature.”

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ALEX WERMER-COLAN: Your last novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, was published in 2012. Since that time, you have edited previously unpublished work, sold your literary archive, and written a few works of short fiction. For the most part, however, you have said you spend your time on Facebook. What forms of writing has Facebook replaced? Do you still write fiction?

SAMUEL R. DELANY: I write mostly fractions of fiction in my journal, but they’re just sketches. Every once in a while, I try to record something: I used to keep journals and write letters. Except for answering emails, however, at this point, I do Facebook posting.

When did you start using Facebook? How has your use of the website changed over time?

I started using Facebook in late November 2008 because my San Diego friend, Kevin Donaker-Ring, and I had been emailing back and forth about my novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. We had been sending large hunks of it back and forth, which he had been helping correct.

As I recall, Kevin had been on Myspace, and when Facebook started up, he really thought I should be on one or the other of them, and he felt Facebook was the more versatile.

When I started out on Facebook, my posts were all verbal. Fairly long discussion threads often developed from mundane posts. I was never sure which topics would generate long threads. The ones that did often surprised me, and would go on for 30 or 40 comments. Others that I thought might fascinate people would die out after four or five. Facebook was originally spelled “FaceBook,” and it took me ages to adjust to typing the word with only one capital. I do know people don’t comment as much today as they did in the first half-dozen years. I’m still not sure if that was an algorithm or simply chance.

In general, my responses to movies usually got lots of comments.

What topics do you regularly discuss in your Facebook posts?

In order to divide the topics into categories, I would have to reread lots and lots of them. In my own mind, I don’t think of them as categories — just whatever is on my mind. Other readers, especially writers, were often willing to talk about any of them. It could be literature, a movie, or an artwork I’d seen in a museum or a book, a development in science or in science fiction, even something I’d seen in Scientific American, or a play, some aspect of construction work in the street, or how a piece of home technology functions, like the chains and weights used to raise and lower urban city windows. For a while, I talked about recipes I was cooking, and that could be fun. I really enjoyed discussing poetry, and sometimes still do. … Back then, it seemed people could go on about any topic forever.

Early on, I heard about Facebook’s love of kittens and puppies and even tried posting pictures of them along with abstruse philosophical topics, thinking that would generate interesting threads: sometimes it did; sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes people would ask what the kittens were doing there.

I remember one post in particular decrying the endless new chairs and other torture implements that NYC was always installing to make the life of homeless people difficult — often in the course of it, making the life of ordinary people in the city difficult along with it. They were always being installed in the Port Authority bus station. They must have cost the city thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. Removing benches and places to sit in general was a big thing. And making telephone booths less and less private was another. It was an awful campaign: under the banner of making life difficult for the homeless, it made life difficult for the elderly and the visitor and the ordinary pedestrian exploring what was once a wonderfully welcoming city.

You seem to post pictures and ideas from your daily life, without much concern about hiding anything. Have you felt worried about Facebook’s violations of its users’ privacy?

No. It’s as private as you want to make it. I never thought it was a private medium. It was to communicate with others, and that’s what I was on it to do.

My partner, Dennis, is sometimes bothered by that aspect. Dennis doesn’t want nude pictures of himself on Facebook.

When I was in my 20s, however, I did nude theater, among other things. I was a member of the Charles Stanley Dance Company before he died. I really enjoyed that work, although basically I was a stagehand. But in some of the works, there was no distinction between stagehands and performers.

You’ve never really felt like you had anything to hide?

No. I was never bothered by any pictures of my body. 

So, you have no secrets?

I have no visual secrets.

You have no secrets written down that you wouldn’t want anyone to find? You wouldn’t write down a secret?

Probably not. Or I would make it in code. And I would make it pretty difficult to decipher.

In The Fall of the Towers, there are little coded references to homosexuality, because I was writing at a time when that was how you did it.

There were people I was out to when I was in high school, though, true, not to my family. Marilyn Hacker, my wife and first confidante, moved to the East Village (Lower East Side) precisely because the neighborhood was known to be more liberal and tolerant of the life that I, at any rate, assumed I’d be living. I was a writer; I was in the arts; and I was gay. We had friends whom I was not out with, and I was not out — particularly — with the science fiction community when I started publishing, but by Stonewall, several people told me it was generally known I was gay, as much as any writer tended to be in those days.

In an essay that I believe dates from the mid-’70s, I wrote: “Honesty is the best policy, and a ‘policy,’ after all, is a strategy for living in the city.” A character named Timothy Hassler quotes it in my novel The Mad Man (June 1993–January 1995). That’s more or less how I’ve tried to live my life — I was a kid, after all, who had grown up in Harlem but had pretty formally broken with the Episcopal Church, where I’d been a choir member and an altar boy, by the time I was 13. I scandalized my dad by refusing to be confirmed after an attempt to have a serious conversation about religious questions with Father Scott. He was a very kind minister who took me to dinner at a small place in Harlem on 8th Avenue to talk about my very wavering faith. He just kept on telling me it wasn’t all that important, so I decided to take him much more seriously than he intended: I dropped “God” and became a (small-“m”) marxist and an atheist.

Do you ever write without the intention of sharing it with the public?

Well, no. But that’s because I think of writing as communication, and I want the communication to be clear. I figure, if you’re going to write it down … what is the Wilde quote? It’s in The Importance of Being Earnest, when his heroine, Cecily, remarks about her diary, “You see, it is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication.”

You write them down in order to read them again. If you want to read them yourself, eventually someone else might want to read them as well. I want to be clear to myself about what I’m thinking.

Did you always think your diaries would be read?

I’d hoped so. The model that taught me to write a journal was the Gide journals. There was a two-volume paperback edition in Vintage Books, which was abridged. I devoured them. Gide was an early hero of mine by the time I was a freshman in high school.

Did you ever feel insecure or embarrassed about what you shared in your fictional or autobiographical writings?

I’m sure I did, but I learned pretty quickly not to be. Before I was 21, I was inspired by something Jean Cocteau once said: “What your friends criticize you for, cultivate. It is you.”

I first encountered that line when I was 20 or 21. A handful of years later, I was chatting with the science fiction writer Thomas M. Disch and his partner, Charles Naylor, when Charles made the remark that I was guilty of “promiscuous autobiographizing.” I thought, well, Charles is my friend, and he’s criticized me for “promiscuous autobiography.” So, let me cultivate it.

What people are comfortable talking about in their sex life has changed so radically over the years, it’s a little hard to explain how that changes you. There are things that I feel I can be very public about and that my partner does not. There are things I wouldn’t have been comfortable talking about when I was 15, 25, or 35, which I’m perfectly comfortable talking about now that I’m 77.

There’s a generation of my family that, at this point, is entirely dead, though the last of them died only 20 years ago. While I think I’m comfortable having them gone, I don’t know how the rest of my father’s family feels, who, in the last years of my life, have become much more important to me. But I don’t see them frequently enough, and I don’t think they read enough of my writing to worry me. In the early years of my life, my mother’s family was much more important. Then, of course, there are my friends through school and business. I’m used to being very, very open there, and so far it’s never come around to bite me.

I’ve talked about having been labeled a sex-radical on public television. The one thing you don’t do when you discuss sexuality in public is actually describe sex. (Most of the time, you don’t even name the acts, though one thing AIDS has made clear since the early ’80s is that talking specifically about them was a life-and-death matter.) I’ve always suspected the only reason I got my four professorships is because so few of my colleagues read my academic work. I’m thinking specifically of Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999) — paradoxically my second-most-popular book. Because I’m retired, and because the situation it discusses has changed so radically thanks to the current president’s personal lawyer, it’s a situation very distant from most people under 30.

You seem to practice “promiscuous autobiography” on your Facebook page. When you post on Facebook, with whom do you usually communicate? What kind of community have you found?

Pretty much anybody who wants to communicate with me and who, more or less, remains civil.

I had one ex-student who was difficult and whom I have let other people take to task for me, and he’s actually improving, as other people keep telling him he’s not behaving in a reasonable manner. He’s actually a nice person and once brought me a jar of homemade chicken soup, but he doesn’t know how to talk to people who don’t 100 percent agree with him on what he thinks is good and bad in the world.

Others include a whole range of critics and teachers, and just ordinary people who are interested in science fiction, climate change, matters gay, or what have you. People too far away from where I am politically get bored very quickly with the discussions and just go away.

So far, I’ve never blocked anyone on Facebook, although the student described above came very close to it, and I even said I was going to do it if he kept up referring to anything he didn’t like as “scum” and using a few too many four-letter words and calling people “fools” who didn’t agree with him. But finally — since we started this interview series — because of all the other people who’ve criticized him, he’s decided not to follow me anymore to avoid them, which is fine by me.

As a student of mine once put it to me years and years ago, who rented a room in my apartment in New York: “If you keep score with individuals, you may come out ahead. If you try to keep score with the entire world, you’ll always lose.” I thought that was profound, and this particular student was basically trying to keep score with anybody and everybody who disagreed with him. He finally decided to drop me because I was friends with all these “difficult” people who didn’t like the way he put things and didn’t agree that his notions were going to save the universe. 

How many of your Facebook friends and interlocutors do you think of as your “fans”?

None of them. I think of them as Facebook friends. I’m always verging on the maximum number of friends. As of this morning, 2,501 people “follow” me.

I go through my list every few months and any of the ones whose icons (or names) I don’t recognize, I drop — because I assume they have gotten bored with me or with Facebook. Now and then somebody among them, whom I also knew in person — like Josh Lukin, a young colleague at Temple; Russell Perreault, who used to work at Random House; or my one-time student Chuck Thomas, whom I first knew in 1975 at SUNY Buffalo and then whom I annually went to lunch with during the dozen-plus years I taught at the Naropa Summer Writing Institute; or Jonathan Bravard, the son of my late friend, Robert S. Bravard — dies.

Most of my current Facebook friends I know very little about. I don’t ask who’s single and who’s gay, who’s partnered, et cetera. Sometimes, because of their profile icons, I have a sense of who’s black and who’s white, and sometimes I don’t. Every once in a while, you learn that somebody you thought was a “he” or a “she” is actually a “they,” so you try to adjust.

Since I first met you, you’ve always taken photos of nearly everything you encountered. How do you understand your use of Facebook to document your explorations of the city?

To me that seems like an exaggeration, but my assistant says your observation is accurate, though I still think of myself as someone who thinks about writing more than I think about picture-taking.

I believe images taken in public places are public property. I don’t object to anybody taking pictures of me when I am on the street, and while I understand that some people are neurotically camera-shy, that’s their problem, not mine.

As I “drift” around the city, I take pictures and post them (although I don’t go out anywhere near as much as I did at one point). “Drift” is a term that goes back to my marriage with Marilyn. We used to call it, the both of us, “calculated drifting.”

Can you define “calculated drifting”?

Marilyn first used the phrase in a poem that appeared in Separations (1976). “I may go drifting anyplace, / lawful and with impunity.” I took the term over myself, and it became “calculated drifting,” which meant what you did both when you were exploring the city as a junior flâneur, or just turning up where you thought there was a possibility of finding sex — for me, pretty soon, when I discovered places like the docks/trucks, the active movie theaters, it became one with cruising.

Though I started looking for it at 13, I didn’t find it on a regular basis till I was 18.

I suspect it had its origin in France with the Situationists — “la dérive.” Guy Debord was another of my early heroes, though I did not get ahold of The Society of the Spectacle until the middle or late ’70s.

Debord defined “la dérive” as “a mode of experimental behavior linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances.” To quote Wikipedia, it is an unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, in which participants drop their everyday relations and (Debord again) “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.” It’s related to what I talk about in Times Square Red, Blue as “contact.” Debord was 11 years my senior. He was a filmmaker. I have been something of a filmmaker, although my work is very, very different from his. Much of his work was as a sort of anti-filmmaking, and I’m more an enthusiast of his writing: The Society of the Spectacle (1967), The Comments (1988), and the two volumes of Panegyric (1989 and 1997). I very much like the differences between them.

The first volume is a beautifully written biographical essay. Its opening lines could be the start of any of our lives: “All my life, I have seen only troubled times, extreme divisions in society, and immense destruction…” The other is a collection of photographs with minimal notes. Those photos are very much like the ones I often posted on Facebook during my wanderings around the city.

Since we’re talking of Debord, I’m also impressed with his use of his version of A Game of War, which figures as the Game of Vlet in Trouble on Triton. (The name is directly borrowed from a story by Joanna Russ, which I told her before she died that I was going to use, and she said it was all right. Russ may have taken her version of it from a combination of chess and Debord as well. [See her story “A Game of Vlet,” the single Alyx tale not included in The Adventures of Alyx but available as the penultimate story in her collection, The Zanzibar Cat (1984)].)

I wish I was more comfortable going out these days, taking pictures of people at work and images of the city. It seems to be, along with many other things, becoming something I “used” to do. There’s only so much drifting one can do inside of one’s own apartment. 

What is it you like about taking photos of your everyday life and sharing them on Facebook?

I think the adage is true: one picture is worth a thousand words. Lots of things can’t be described in words but can only be evoked in terms of type — if you are writing to an audience who is familiar with the “type” you are writing about: “There were mountains at the horizon, some touched with snow, some streaked with winter forests among the rocks, especially those to the left.” Yes, it evokes a picture, but it could be in Thessalonica or Colorado or even the Carpathians on the coast of Slovakia. I actually took the ride up through Dubrovnik twice, and it is quite as spectacular as everyone says it is, but in my first couple of trips to Europe, I didn’t have my own camera.

I thoroughly enjoyed the biopic on Zuckerberg, The Social Network (2010). My sense is that’s about when I started posting pictures of my own, or at least trying to get pictures from the internet that were appropriate for my posts. My assistant, Bill, says pictures didn’t enter into my own work until 2016. I have no memory of how that started.

The first mention of an iPhone is a wonderful picture Dennis took from our roof in New York, using his phone. It was, for the longest time, my Facebook cover photo.

Photo by Dennis Rickett

I’m pretty sure if Dennis had a smartphone, I had one, too. I remember that it was a wonderful day: this was the time I learned about the Band of Alexander, an area of unlit sky between two rainbows that always appear on each side of it. It was June 3, 2012, and a bunch of people, including writer Christopher Bram and my cousins Peter Murphy and Evan Stent, saw it (that is, saw the real thing at 6:30 p.m.) and commented on my Facebook page in the thread my post first produced. A few years later, this whole view was blocked by the owners of the building next door raising the roof by three or more stories.

I always enjoyed developing pictures — one of my freshman high school friends, Danny Auerbach, had an extensive darkroom in his Queens basement, which I remember using. In my second Lower East Side apartment, Marilyn and I used to develop photographs in our bathroom after we moved from East 6th Street to East 7th. I still remember the smell of hypo and the endless washing of the prints. I write about that stuff in Dark Reflections, but I never had a really portable one-handed camera until my iPhone came along.

The Family of Man was one of my favorite exhibits (at the Museum of Modern Art) and the printed catalog was one of my favorite books. I even had a pocket version, which I kept for years, and earlier I’d had a full-sized one. One of my essays, “Mid-Century,” uses pictures from it, but the pictures I’ve always possessed of my personal life have been of my neighborhood, in snow storms or after neighborhood events. Being able to show my photos to other people, by means of Facebook, was a delight.

Do you see your use of Facebook as going against the grain of what people usually use the platform for?

I think going against the grain is something I aspire to do; I don’t know whether I actually achieve that or not.

What might I mean when I talk about going against the grain of Facebook? It might be something as banal as the fact that you don’t find a lot of kittens and puppies on my timeline, though just this morning, I reposted a nice video of a guy and a wild mynah bird, who began singing to each other. I pointed out in my comment that this was a very nice relationship threatened by manmade climate change.

If you don’t take your “psycho-geographic” walks as much anymore, what has taken its place on your Facebook page?

I just broke down and got myself a TV, and we’ll see if I can find a place to put it. These days I take more pictures of books — which I then post.

Because I don’t go out as much as I once did, probably I post more political things than I used to. And I used to take lots of pictures of technological stuff around my house, which I don’t do anymore, because we don’t have anything around of interest. I seem to have a picture series of the delivery folks who bring our evening sandwiches.

The best way to answer this is for you to look on my timeline.

Can you say a bit about your interest in publishing your Facebook posts in another format, like a book?

Well, yes, it’s something I’d like to do; but, no, I can’t talk about it too much more until I’m further along in the project. I have to find out what I can do in practical terms. A number of my readers have suggested, over the years, they’d like to see some of the posts and threads they’ve generated in a book.

I want it to be a collection that reflects the variety of what I post about. I really would like to have color pictures. (A black-and-white picture of a rainbow over a black-and-white landscape is pretty dull.) I’m not sure whether this can be reasonably done throughout or in a separate sheaf. I did show it to one of my favorite small publishers, who thought I should cut things and was not very sanguine about the color — though it looks as if I might be able to do it if I self-published, like with Amazon.

One reader has suggested I divide things up into categories, but others have said that the variety and the switching back and forth, along with the interweaving of day-to-day experiences, is part of what makes the progression enjoyable. I want to go with the latter. Neither I nor my assistant can talk about the number of categories entailed, and we’ve been working on it seriously for several months. At this point, I just think the emphasis on categories is the wrong approach.

An aphorism that I’ve often been drawn to is one I think comes from Goethe: “A man of 50 knows no more than a man of 20. They just know different things.” Often, however, you’re not aware of the things you trade away in order to keep on growing. I do find it interesting to learn what it is, new, that I seem to know now, and I’m painfully aware of how much I no longer know. That’s part, I guess, of growing old.

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Alex Wermer-Colan is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Twentieth Century Literature, The Yearbook of Comparative Literature, Lost & Found, and Indiana University Press.

 

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