The Genre of Life: On Frank Robinson and Samuel Delany

There are never enough memoirs and autobiographies available from genre writers. Historically scarce for various reasons — perhaps the most significant being a lack of uncontracted-for free time on the part of the writers themselves — first-person accounts of the creative and commercial lives of pulpsters and popular-fiction authors are generally entertaining, informative, and illuminating of how fiction for the masses is created and sold, as well as being colorfully descriptive of historical characters from these genre milieus and the mundane events of a working writer’s life.

Fans of crime fiction and SF would have devoured full-length autobiographies from such figures as Theodore Sturgeon, Donald Westlake, Elmore Leonard, Leigh Brackett, Patricia Highsmith, or James Tiptree. But that opportunity has been lost with their deaths, even if the occasional personally slanted essay survives. The books that have appeared along these lines, from such folks as Fred Pohl, Jack Vance, Jack Williamson, Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, Frank Gruber, Jim Thompson, H. Rider Haggard, John Buchan, Shirley Jackson, and others, are cherished and kept in print.

Luckily for those of us who relish such intimate and informative narratives, two SF writers have recently gifted us with their accounts. One, Frank Robinson, is recently departed, having died in 2014. Born in 1926, he belonged to the generation of writers who came to prominence in the 1950s. The second man, Samuel Delany, is happily still with us. Born almost twenty years after Robinson, and a prodigy, Delany flared into prominence not two decades later, as one might expect, but in the early 1960s.

The fact that Delany is and Robinson was gay makes their accounts of their lives all the more compelling, since the full record of contributions by LGBT authors in the field has been obscured by past prejudices and once-dominant social and publishing practices. For instance, even today the sexuality of Arthur C. Clarke is little commented on — arguably, a condition he seemed to prefer — and his name is hardly the first byline that most people would think of when compiling an honor roll of gay SF writers.

While Robinson’s Not So Good a Gay Man is a semi-formal autobiography, Delany’s In Search of Silence: The Journals of Samuel R. Delany, Volume I, 1957-1969 is the reproduction of a necessarily more scattershot diary or daybook that addresses the events and course of his life in a more haphazard way. Along with their generational and career-path differences, these contrasting formats offer intriguing points of discussion.

Robinson’s book first comes off as a breezy raconteur’s banquet, offering up the highlights of a packed, productive life. And yet the bones beneath the skin harbor a deep sadness, melancholy, and sense of regret, tied to the rigors of being gay in midcentury America. The title, of course, puts this self-doubt and lingering malaise front and center.

Robinson’s Illinois childhood echoed those of his generational peers, such as Will Eisner, Harlan Ellison, and Isaac Asimov: he recalls his pre-WWII life as a mélange of movies, comics, and sleepover camps, filled with rough-and-tumble free-range juvenile dynamics. A father’s abandonment precipitated family chaos, which settled down into a blended household when his mother married, strictly out of practicality, the man who became his stepfather. Early sexual tensions with a stepbrother offered some rudimentary self-awareness that Robinson’s sexual impulses were not aimed at females. Some early college years were interrupted by wartime service. The postwar resumption of college life was mixed up with nascent fiction writing, the sale of a first novel (“Lippincott wanted some minor changes, but they offered an advance of $500”), and eventual employment at a variety of magazines. Science fiction fandom filled in any gaps of time. And throughout, Robinson wrestled with his libido and the nature of his desires, finding little help from any community or font of sane authority.

By 1959 he was employed as an editor at Rogue magazine, a rival to Playboy. As the 1960s accelerated into their quintessential wildness, Robinson ramped up his own quest for personal freedom, eventually ending up in San Francisco for the Summer of Love and beyond. Finally burning out there, he ended up back in Chicago, working at last for Playboy, where, irony of ironies, he, a stifled gay man, dispensed the hip heterosexual hedonism of the “Advisor” column. His literary career really took off when he and fellow gay author Thomas Scortia wrote a series of bestselling disaster novels, starting with The Glass Inferno (filmed as The Towering Inferno). The profits allowed him to live as he wished — and to accumulate one of the standout collections of pulp magazines, later valued at over a million dollars.

Robinson’s fascinating life did not, however, stall out there. Returned to San Francisco, he became speechwriter to politician Harvey Milk, martyred in the midst of their relationship, and participated, willy-nilly yet heroically, in the early years of the AIDS crisis. This brings us up roughly to the mid-1980s. Robinson’s last three decades are, unfortunately, scanted in a mere final thirty pages. And alas, a hoped-for index is nowhere to be found.

But the novelist’s eye for details and sharp characterizations are both in evidence throughout. He conjures people into solidity with an easy hand.

One day Bill [Hamling] asked me to fill in as bartender for a party he was throwing in his rec room the next week. The party was a rousing success, but I noticed a man standing quietly in a corner who didn’t talk much to the people there. It turned out that he’d worked with Bill when they had both been employed by a publishing company in a North Side suburb. He was a would-be cartoonist Bill said, and had self-published a book of his own cartoons titled Chicago, That Toddling Town. As a favor Bill had bought several of his cartoons for Imagination, though he never planned to publish them. I think I poured a beer for the man and promptly forgot him.

That was the first time I met Hugh Hefner, though it wouldn’t be the last.

That portrait of Hefner as nerdy wallflower goes on to underpin as subtext all the subsequent encounters that Robinson chronicles.

Of course, Robinson’s own sharp perceptions and portraiture talents are trained on no figure more intently than on himself. His dissection of his neuroses and fumbling attempts to break through the constraints of psyche and society are unsparing.

My self-esteem was rapidly sinking, and there was nobody in whom I could confide, nobody who could offer real-life advice. I was on my own, and if I didn’t do something I would go off a bridge, as Tyler Clementi was to do generations later.

I had to bite the bullet and do what I knew had to be done. I didn’t succeed, but in the process I managed to fuck up the lives of two other people.

This fraught, dangerous, frustrating, yet ultimately triumphant journey — “My life changed in an instant; it was like slamming a door . . . I had been leading two lives for years and now one of them was abruptly dead” — is the prickly armature on which Robinson hangs all the other marvelous, colorful incidents of his rich life. It’s a brave display whose antithetical components merge into one organic vision of a life deeply fulfilled.

* * *

The most apt comparison I believe I can make after finishing Samuel Delany’s In Search of Silence is to reading Philip K. Dick’s equally massive omnium-gatherum, Exegesis, his graphomaniacal attempt to derive sense from a mystical experience he underwent. Both reading experiences are tantamount to undergoing telepathic overload from tapping into the stream of consciousness — never meant to be overheard — of a unique genius whose mind is roiled by a million different concerns, topics, themes, emotions, accomplishments, insights, and dreams.

But conversely, there is a major difference between the two men and the two books that is best encapsulated in a famous quote from Salvador Dalí: “The only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad.” (Alternatively: “The difference between me and a madman is the madman thinks that he is sane. I know that I am mad.”) The “madman” of course would be helpless, hapless Dick, while his “sane” counterpart is competent, composed Delany. In Dick’s case, his copious text is an almost involuntary response to the incomprehensible world, an attempt to master chaos and distance himself from it, while Delany’s journals are a very deliberate and willed attempt to chronicle and internalize the beckoning world and to write himself into a higher resolution of being.

Whether my comparison holds up or not, the reader of Delany’s project is certainly in for a wild ride through a torrential landscape of autobiography, drafts of fiction, essays, correspondence, travelogues, pornographic fantasies, word portraits of friends and strangers, intellectual experiments such as the creation of an artificial language, and literary criticism.

Much of the book’s success has to be credited to the masterful work by editor Kenneth R. James. His general introduction is a concise history of the author, his materials, and Delany’s place in the canon. Then, with each section of the book, James provides more guidance, setting the historical context for what we are about to read, highlighting the most interesting bits, and explaining his curatorial decisions.

Delany began annotating his own existence at the age of fifteen and continued for decades, though this present volume culls from only roughly twelve years of notebooks. But it’s enough to chart the development of a nonpareil mind and talent in greater depth than even Delany’s previously published autobiographical works.

From 1957, the very first notebook — presented only in an appendix, due to some slight doubt as to its chronological provenance — opens with fifteen-year-old Delany’s “Outline for ‘Great American Novel.’ ” This far-from-standard-adolescent presumption and preoccupation is typical of the whole project. That Delany would see his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor, published when he was only twenty is foreshadowed by the wealth of literary experiments and the developing esthetic sensibilities on display here. Whether he is cultivating his novelist’s ear by recording public conversations, scribbling story fragments and titles, or tossing off doggerel –“Lateday sadness / melting madness / to recapture / morning rapture” — Delany is ever awash in a welter of language.


But of course all of these attempts to grapple with the constraints and delights of formal prose are interspersed with heartfelt chronicles of love affairs, familial dramas, comradely excursions, scholastic assignments, and other quotidian matters. Throughout, Delany is striving to fathom and embrace his own sexuality. His path seems to have been easier than Robinson’s, due no doubt in part to sheer temperamental differences between the two men. But Delany also operated from a platform of wider reading, of deeper urban acceptance, and of the shifting mores of the relaxed 1960s as opposed to the more straitjacketed 1940s. But of course, life is not a bowl of cherries. His never-diminished love for — and abortive marriage with — the poet Marilyn Hacker is a turbulent journey, from one end of this volume to the other. And in 1964 Delany suffered a kind of nervous breakdown from the strain of overwork and other causes, requiring hospitalization. Although this was the most significant roadblock to his growing harmony of mind and body, the book recounts many other such pitfalls common to sensitive gay artists. Even three years later, he is still undergoing panic attacks:

This morning a bit after six, I woke up in a total panic that my heart would stop. I must’ve catapulted from the deepest sleep because I was exhausted. After I was awake a moment my heart began to pound and I began to sweat. I tried to return to sleep, but this obsession rode my mind like a bronco rider. I lay there holding my pulse, trying to discover other places where I could feel it. Each natural change would terrify me. I knew it was all ridiculous anxiety, yet I was completely convinced. Half a dozen times I began to fall into tingly, nervous sleep, and pulled myself awake. I knew this anxiety must be generating from the confusion around me. Ron is leaving in June, and we treat the business as though it is the end of the relationship. My mother just left for her vacation in Greece, and her worries were all about leaving me alone. As I write this, I feel my anxiety rising, and yet I can’t follow the connections. I was obsessed with the idea of speaking to Marilyn. But there is no money in the house to call. I think the whole business was sparked last night when Linda Sampson came over to see Ron, quietly hysterical. I had put in my first good day of work in weeks. Ron & Linda talked in the other room. She was having one of those negative female adolescent epiphanies: she was alone and terrified and wanted Ron to go away with her. She verged over into tears a couple of times. I felt sympathetic. I also hated her for being weak — there was perhaps just the faintest bit of jealousy that Ron paid so much attention to her, but even more I was terribly envious of her for being able to feel like that. A few more years have passed and I have not cried. I hate everybody who can: I suppose that especially means women who do it so easily. It sits like a ball in the back of my throat, wanting to get out.

Samuel Delany photographed by Scott Dagostino.

But the overall tenor of this book — of course, never composed as a coherent narrative, and yet somehow taking the shape of one in retrospect — is one of joy, brio, excitement, and ambition. The reader will experience not only the passions of youth but also the dizzying atmosphere of the era. Often these pleasures combine, such as in Delany’s travelogues of his separate excursions to the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals. When, as an award-winning writer, Delany sets off for Europe, the reader experiences the same broadening of horizons that the author did.

While these accessible threads will appeal to general readers, two aspects of the book will delight SF specialists above all. The first concerns Delany’s attempt to create a critical vocabulary and approach for dealing with science fiction. Drafts of essays point toward the voluminous and groundbreaking work that would appear in such later books of his as The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. The second aspect deals with his fiction. We get to see not only the often contorted trail that brought him to the finished books but also the many, many ideas and conceits that died a-borning. (Not all of it is genius; The Flames of the Warthog has to be one of the dumbest ostensibly serious titles ever.) The evolution of such masterpieces as Nova and The Einstein Intersection is vividly on display, providing for the first time ever a look at the many discarded iterations that resulted in the finished books. But even more alluring, to my tastes at least, are the ambitious projects that never bore fruit, such as this one:

Mirror and Lens

A series of five novels following the life and times of Ian Scorda during the Solar Revolution. Each volume will be between 70 & 80 [thousand] words.

As a fiction writer myself, having grown up on Delany’s work and continuing to be enamored of it, I am tempted by almost every page to pick up these cast-off concepts and write the books I wish Delany had found the time and energy and circumstances to provide! Many other readers will feel the same, daydreaming about lost worlds where these books did emerge.

The decision to print these revelatory notebooks, which hold nothing back and which exemplify Delany’s devotion to his craft and to a wide-armed embrace of all types of people and all the muck and mire and celestial effulgence of the world, is typical of the generous way in which the man has lived his life and delivered us his books. They are just one more gift from a boy named Chip.

Top photo of Samuel Delany on Avenue B, summer 1966, by Ed McCabe.

Photo of Samuel Delany with hat by Scott Dagostino.