SF&F Troubleshooting with Samuel R. Delany: Clichés and Straw Men

This month, our guest author is Samuel R. Delany, a respected literary critic and Nebula-winning science fiction writer as well as one of this summer’s instructors at Clarion.  In this new essay written especially for the Clarion blog, Delany gets at the heart of those nasty “-isms” in fiction and offers advice on how to avoid them in your own work as well as constructively critique them in others’.  Enjoy!



All right.

What do you do when someone in your writing workshop hands in a story that’s offensively sexist; or racist; or homophobic; or agist; or ablest; or any other “-ist” you can think of?

Well, the first thing to state is what you don’t do—and why. You don’t announce: “This story (or character; or plot turn) is offensively sexist (or racist; or homophobic).” Why? Because, if the writer has done it on purpose to get a rise out of the workshop leader or the other members, you’re playing directly into his (or her) hands. You’re a minute away from an argument about “political correctness” that simply won’t get anyone anywhere. As a workshop leader you have to decide how serious the writer is; or if the writer wrote and submitted the story in good faith, and it just came out that way. You have to remember:




And all the other political terms for criticism that can be leveled at a story are a kind of shorthand for whole complexes of elements. If the writer really knew how that complex of elements worked to mar the story’s effect, almost certainly the writer wouldn’t  have fallen into the trap of the offensive pattern itself, any more than the writer is purposely going to have fallen into jarring breaches of grammar in the neutral narrator’s voice of the tale, other than by oversight.

The “-ist” errors are not a matter of being unpleasant to one brand of character or another—although the errors themselves can be very unpleasant indeed. The central culprit is the cliché. The cliché is what everybody says over and over about women, about blacks, about gays—or any other group.

The best way to start criticizing any story is by praising its strengths.  As a workshop leader your job is to be able to point these out to the group—and that even the most politically offensive story can have things right about it. But then, you also get to the, “I do see some problems with story, however . . .”

That’s the time—without letting the words “sexist” or “racist” or any other politically loaded term escape your lips—to point out the cliché, either of plot or of language, that produces the unwanted effect. If the contributor throws “political correctness” at you, you can look back with honest and innocent eyes and say, “Hey, have I mentioned anything about politics? This is all about aesthetics, believe me.”

What you have to be ready to point out is: “The fact is, that’s pretty old hat. You might want to go back and observe it in your mind’s eye until you see something fresher and less hackneyed about the character or the situation.”

An extremely fine, short book, by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Gorden, covers much of this. It’s called Writing the Other, and it’s published by L. Timmel Duchamp’s Aquaduct Press. Good as it is, however, it assumes the writing groups in which these problems arise are peopled by writers who all know each other and all of whom start out, politically, on the same page. As a Professor of Creative Writing (that’s actually part of my title at Temple University) over the past forty years, I have led more than a hundred different workshops in more than three dozen towns and cities around the country in over a dozen states. And such accord is not always the case. For a start, we would like to be able to imagine Democrats and Republicans in the same writing group. That’s why I suggest, as I do, dissolving the political questions down into the aesthetic ideas about clichés that underlie them.

Another idea that can often be useful to a young writer who has some real talent  but  who tends to fall into political didacticism comes from great English novelist D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence suggests that the writer learn how to “Think against yourself.”

Writers do have things they want to say, and points they want to make about the world around them.

What Lawrence suggested is, once you have identified the character(s) or situation(s) that represents the ideas you personally don’t agree with or don’t approve of, think through the argument again and see if you can give the side you don’t agree with the absolutely best expression you can possibly come up with. Try to come up with a version of the argument against your own position that is so forceful it could even convince you, if it came to that. Then have your main character put some real creative energy into vanquishing that argument dramatically, rather than just verbally.

It isn’t that impressive when the hero triumphs over a dumb or silly straw argument. Use real thought to give the opposition some substance.

With time, the politics tends to fall away from literature: when we watch Shakespeare’s Coriolanus today, and hear about the wheat riots off in the roman country side, most of us don’t know that only months before the play was first performed, similar riots troubled the fields of England, with similar political results. We don’t remember that when Macbeth was performed, the same problems were being debated in whispers throughout the country because of the Guy Fawkes “Gunpowder Plot,” so that these  questions of legitimacy galvanized its initial audience.

Whether it was his satires of Elizabeth’s prime ministor, Lord Burley, in Hamlet, or his quotations from the Florio translation of Montaigne in The Tempest, Shakespeare was the most political of playwrights.

We need to develop techniques to enrich the political concerns in our narratives and poems today, so they don’t register as empty preachments. I’ve mentioned a couple of possibilities here. Now you need to think of some of your own.

*      *     *

What’s the more important thing about writing? Writing lots and lots? Or thinking about writing lots and lots?

Like speaking, writing is a habit driven practice. Sadly, writing ill-thought-out badly written, clumsily articulated stories is not practice for writing crafted, imaginative, and inventive stories—because so much of writing is habit. Mostly it’s practice for writing more ill-thought-out, clumsily articulated tales. Improving your writing is always a matter of changing your habits.

That requires thought—thought about writing, starting with the word, the phrase, the sentence.

You know you’re improving your writing when you start thinking thoughts in the form: “I am no longer going to do X, Y, or Z . . .”

“I am no longer going to use adverbs unless they are absolutely necessary and the idea or the voice can not be understood without them.”

“I am no longer going to let any verbal baggage settle between the subject and the verb in my sentences.”

“I am no longer going to use any received language in my prose unless the effect I want is funny.”

When you reach decisions of that sort, the way to implement them is through revision—because writing (once more) is habit, and habit will keep you doing what you have been doing all along, even after you make up your mind to do something else.

So, yes, revise.

You’ll start getting new habits, and your writing will actually improve.


9 thoughts on “SF&F Troubleshooting with Samuel R. Delany: Clichés and Straw Men

  1. Question re: “I am no longer going to use any received language in my prose unless the effect I want is funny.”

    What is “received language” ?

    1. J. Andrews. Yes, *Writing the Other* is by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. My apologies to the authors for messing that one up.

  2. This is a very interesting post, and I think it could easily apply to non-fiction writing as well. In fact, it’s just great thought. As a blogger, I tend to write off the top of my head. Now that I’m writing for someone else, I’m having to really think about my words in a new way; something I should have been doing for myself anyhow.

    And the stereotype as cliche, rather than political correctness, is a brilliant insight applicable everywhere.

  3. This post was particularly timely for my own writing group. Thank you for providing a tool that defuses these incendiaries.

  4. Received language is the blocks of language which come to us already fixed and cliched, which are too often repeated.


    “Dammit, Johnny,” he said. “The team *needs* you. How could you do this us?”

    “Michael, please,” she said, squirming in his grasp. “You’re *hurting* me.”

    The night was stormy, the road was long, there was far to go before he slept …

  5. In those eventful times, you blog underlines how we need to defuse abusive or incendiary language. As writers, it is a responsibility we have to carry to the best of our abilities. Thank you again.

    Sunday Artist

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