No, this isn’t going to be as exciting as it sounds, ladies and gentlemen.
And I’m still trying to figure out why. Gopnik says a lot of nice things about Dick’s ideas, about the “haunting” quality of some of his novels. Yes, he does consign Dick’s prose at the sentence and paragraph level to the garbage heap, but, frankly, I’d have to agree with him. At the same time, Gopnik is saying that doesn’t matter, really, as much as it might in some other writer. (Oddly, to me “Gopnik” sounds like a name right out of a Dick novel.)
I guess where Gopnik has gotten in trouble with some is because of statements like this:
The trouble is that, much as one would like to place Dick above or alongside Pynchon and Vonnegut–or, for that matter, Chesterton or Tolkien–as a poet of the fantastic parable he was a pretty bad writer. Though his imagination is at least the equal of theirs, he had, as he ruefully knew, a hack’s habits, too, and he never really got over them. He has three, at most four, characters, whom he shuffles from hand to hand and novel to novel like a magician with the same mangy rabbits. There is the sexy young stoned girl; the wise or shrewish wife; the ordinary schlub who is his Everyman; and the Mad Engineer who is usually the Designated Explainer.
Now, the first part of this I agree with whole-heartedly. Dick isn’t as good as Pynchon. He isn’t as good as Vonnegut, either. When Gopnik invokes Chesterton and Tolkien he begins to lose my sympathy a bit–after all, Chesterton is clever but his ideas aren’t particularly deep, and Tolkien is hardly a “poet of the fantastic parable”.
As for the “hack’s habits,” the point is solid even if Gopnik seems a little too impressed with his own consonance. In Dick, your Everyman main character may have the trappings of characterization, but almost everyone else tends to be made of cardboard.
Where Gopnik could’ve made more of a point, although I think he does imply it, is in saying, directly, that Dick’s trespasses are inextricably interwoven with his strengths as a writer–specifically, his imagination, his visionary quality, his effortless extrapolation, at the “ground level,” of certain forms of technology.
Readers may not be happy, either, with Gopnik’s assertion that:
The trouble isn’t that Dick suffers by some school-marmish standard of fine writing. It’s that the absence of any life within the writing on the page ends up robbing the books of the vital force that pushes you past pages. As an adult reader coming back to Dick, you start off in a state of renewed wonder and then find yourself thumbing ahead to see how much farther you are going to have to go. At the end of a Dick marathon, you end up admiring every one of his conceits and not a single one of his sentences…That’s probably why Dick’s reputation as a serious writer, like Poe’s, has always been higher in France, where the sentences aren’t read as they were written.
However, frankly, this makes a lot of sense. For years, I’ve joked that Dick is popular in France because the translations smooth out the prose. (Whether this is true or not is a different story.) And I personally can’t remember anything about Dick on the sentence level. I surely never read him because I admired his prose. I admired him for the way he infiltrated my brain.
In any event, I really don’t see what in Gopnik’s assertions can be considered controversial. I think this has all be said before, in some context.
It is interesting to note Ed Champion’s skewering of Gopnik, though, because here we have a non-SF guy talking about the context of Dick in the SF community (not necessarily a bad thing). For example, “Gopnik does not seem to understand, for example, that the Hugo Award was quite a different accolade in 1963 than it was today.” Champion goes on to say that “Before science fiction became somewhat respectable, spurred in part by the increasing acceptability of geekdom in the 1990s, it was considered a field populated by kooks, shifty-eyed magpies, and other assorted lunatics.” And then castigates Gopnik for some statements that don’t seem to reflect the reality of the field back then.
However, I’m not sure Gopnik’s wrong when he writes, “There were a million places to write sci-fi in those years, publishers eager to have it, and readers eager to argue about it.” If you listen to Samuel Delany, for example, it becomes quite clear that back then an idiosyncratic writer like Delany or Dick could potentially sell a lot more copies than in today’s publishing atmosphere, whether to a non-elitist audience or not. In mass market paperback. As for the Hugo Award, it’ll take a lot for me to see the Hugo Award of today as more respectable than in the 1960s/70s, rather than as a ghost of its former self, in terms of interest level and the number of people voting for it. (I’ll expect Cheryl Morgan to tell me if I’m wrong or right, here.)
Clearly, Dick’s canonization by the Library of America means a lot to the genre community, and Gopnik’s assessment, by not always being a “rave review,” seems to challenge “a win for one of us” (as Darrell Schweitzer recently typified some mainstream award being won by Ray Bradbury). But considering how often the genre field rejects and resents intrusions by the mainstream into its “business”, it seems a bit hypocritical to get so steamed over the mainstream’s caution over Dick. Especially considering he’s not exactly genre’s best Ambassador For a Perfect Prose Style.
In fact, I find it odd that Lovecraft and Dick get to go where Nabokov and others of his ilk have been before. They’re odd choices in that you can make the argument that both have deficient prose styles that are made tolerable by visionary imaginations. Why not Sturgeon instead? Why not Delany? Why not any number of other, more polished writers? Instead, we have the two writers you could most clearly define as “Outsider Artists”.
It makes the Library of America seem interested in mutants and sideshow freaks from the genre side of things. It makes it seem as if the thing the mainstream finds tolerable about genre is its imagination but not its craft. I know that’s not the reality of the situation, but I would like to see a series like the Library of America celebrate the visionary coupled with mastery of craft when it picks so-called “genre” writers.