The Case For and Against Dick

Jeff VanderMeer • August 22nd, 2007 @ 6:24 pm • Book Reviews, Writing Tips

No, this isn’t going to be as exciting as it sounds, ladies and gentlemen.

I’m talking about Philip K. Dick, and most notably the essay about him in the New Yorker by Adam Gopnik that seems to have provoked a firestorm in some quarters, most recently on Ed Champion’s blog.

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.

Jeff

36 Responses to “The Case For and Against Dick”

  1. jeff ford says:

    I never found Dick’s prose all that choppy. When I encountered him, not till my 30′s, one of the things that got me into him was the readability of the writing and the compelling nature of the stories. I’d say he’s got that over Pynchon, whom I’m not knocking, but comparing them is kind of retarded. He’s more like Vonnegut and maybe today, Chuck Palhaniuck (I know I murdered the spelling of this guy’s name), both of whom rate high on readability for me and often, enjoyment. I found Dick in a book store and read the first few pages of Time Out of Joint and thought, “Man, that’s a fucked up title. Little did I know it was from shakespeare. The first couple of pages hooked me and I couldn’t believe it. My favorite is Radio Free Ablemuth (now that is a fucked up title and as far as I know not from Shakespeare. My other question is what is Gopnick’s purpose in that essay? To what? Figure out where Dick resides in Gopnick’s universe of literary stars? To pointlessly compare him to other writers? To point out what is obvious about Dick to anyone who reads him? To fill space? And why should anyone give a shit what Gopnick thinks about Dick? I didn’t think his essay was bad, and I don’t think he went out of his way to dis Dick, he just didn’t come up with anything of interest to say about him as far as I was concerned. That said, Gopnick’s got as much right to meander on about Dick as I did, and probably more since he’s publishing in The New Yorker.

  2. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I think he probably had to give some context for people who’ve never heard of PKD.

    Comparing the Pynchon of V and some of PKD isn’t retarded–they’re both into conspiracies and crap like that.

    You got more out of Dick than I did, then. Never really fond of his prose.

    My main point is just–I don’t think Gopnick’s saying anything particularly insane.

    jeff

  3. jeff ford says:

    No, but he’s not saying anything really. I wasn’t talking about Pynchon’s interest in conspiracy, I was talking about his style. You’re right about the conspiracies, though. My problem with the whole thing is that only now, The New Yorker is running a piece on Dick? It gives some indication as to how behind the times they are. I could see them running a piece on Dick if the writer had something to say, but like you say they are treating this as an introductory piece when much of the culture already gets Dick — what with all the films and wide spread discussion of his books. Why not have someone write about him who really has something new to say about him or his work? I found no revelations in Gopnick’s essay — and like I said I didn’t think it was necessarily bad. I guess for me, as far as Dick goes, The New Yorker’s assessment of his work at this point is pretty meaningless. At this point it looks like they’re using Dick instead of conveying something about him. He doesn’t need them. Got any good sentences that you find particularly heinous in Dick’s work?

  4. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I don’t have any PKD in the house at the moment–it’s all in storage. I don’t know if heinous is the word, so much as what Gopnick says: lifeless. And, as Gopnick also says, I think, it doesn’t so much matter in Dick’s case. I never read Dick for the prose style, and I don’t know anyone who does. I’m also not saying I don’t like PKD. I’m just saying, Gopnick doesn’t say anything outrageous.

    Of course they’re running the piece now because the Library of America did the books. L of A did the books because Dick had Jonathan Lethem as an advocate and because he’s entered pop culture through the movies based on his work. Most people know the movies; a lot fewer know the books.

    Anyway, I think I find the Gopnick more useful than you do, but I agree that it doesn’t say anything people who already know about Dick don’t already know.

    Jeff

  5. jeff ford says:

    I’m with you on this. I definitely get what your saying. I really don’t think the essay is grounds to get bent out of shape over either, as I take it people have. I’d like to know why they gave the piece to Gopnick to do. That would be interesting to know. Dick, Pynchon, Vonnegut, they all strike me as pretty amazing in their own ways.

  6. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I agree that someone else could’ve taken Gopnik’s major points and gone from there with a more interesting discussion. What I think would be interesting, too, is to really go into why Dick seems to translate to film so easily. I don’t think it’s for the reasons Gopnik gives.

    Dr. Blood Money? That’s one of Dick’s, right? Read that when I was like 15 and loved it. Now, I think I’ve got to go back and read Ubik, etc.

    Jeff

  7. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Re-read Ubik, that is.
    Jeffv

  8. jeff ford says:

    Makes me want to go back and reread some of them too.

  9. Linker’s Run « Torque Control says:

    [...] Gopnik writes about Philip K. Dick in The New Yorker; Ed Champion and Jeff VanderMeer [...]

  10. David Moles says:

    I dug the Gopnik piece. I got the impression many of the people complaining about it didn’t read past the first couple of paragraphs — had their hackles raised by “genre writing can support only one genius at a time” bit, and stopped.

  11. Matt Staggs says:

    I’ve always been a bit ashamed to explain that I find Dick’s writing to be awful. It’s good to see that I’m not alone.

    This kind of controversy over an “outsider” artist reminds me of the indie music kids down at the local music shop. Point: lots of good stuff gets overlooked by mainstream purveyors of acceptable content; associated point: not everything is good just because it’s “indie.”

    One can’t afford to become wilfully blind to the flaws of a work simply because of the ideas one connects to its existence.

  12. ed says:

    If Gopnik has nothing particularly compelling to say and can’t seem to grasp his purportedly commodious noggin around PKD, then why bother to write about him at all? This is why I think the essay is pointless and needed to be taken to task. Why squander a long-form opportunity to really figure out what PKD is all about? It’s amusing to me to see Gopnik play the “hack” card when his essay, by way of scant passion and failing to offer specifics to shape his argument, is a hack job.

  13. ed says:

    One other thing: Do we have any hard sales figures to go by concerning idiosyncratic writers like Delany and Dick? Or just Delany’s words? That’s the logical fallacy of anecdotal evidence, Jeff. Tsk tsk. But I’d definitely be curious to get more evidence for what the s/f publishing climate was back then. As for the Hugo’s respectability, conduct a Google News Archive search for “Hugo Award” in the 1960s and today, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. More press mentions, more references to the Hugo in obituaries, etcetera. Although Cheryl Morgan can indeed probably set us all straight on this.

  14. mark says:

    Yeah I read PKD for the ideas and the ‘getting in your head’ thing. You have got to remember he was a speed freek as well and I can tell you that that does some *really* odd things to your judgement. It certainly shows in his writing big time,

    More importantly – just why isn’t Delany more well known? every single one of his books has blown me away -

  15. jeff ford says:

    “It certainly shows in his writing big time,” Where?

  16. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Ed–You could be a midlist author in the 1960s and 1970s in SF and be published in mass market. Someone like Delany could be published (and was published) in mass market. I think that makes the case all by itself. It’s not really anecdotal evidence.

    As for the Hugos–I think the very fact there’s an internet now means there’s more mention of it, thus skewing your results, but so few people vote on it that it’s hard for me to take it seriously. It’s definitely not a barometer of any serious artistic merit, that’s for sure. It’s much more of a popularity contest at this stage.

    Mr. Ford’s bull elephant to my matador made me retreat somewhat from my points in the original post, but the fact is–I still can’t really read Dick for the prose, and for the New Yorker’s audience, I think a lot of that stuff was new to them. I still go back to my initial point–there’s nothing inherently wrong with Gopnik’s piece and opinion other than a little snarky phrasing here and there.

    JeffV

  17. jeff ford says:

    What does that mean — to read it for the prose? You must have something in mind when you say that. What do you read for the prose? By calling my approach bull elephant, I guess you can dismiss it, but in reality I wasn’t even disagreeing with you but merely saying that Gopnick’s piece was empty — not bad necessarily, by no means infuriating — that would be like getting mad at a bucket of jello. Sometimes prose, like in Dracula or in Dick’s fiction, has to be a certain way to be effective in telling the story. For instance, the stilted melodramatic writing of Dracula makes it more lurid to me than if it was written in a subtler style. Another good example is how Amost Tutola’s prose works to enhance the effect of the story in My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. I have a feeling Dick’s style does the same in some way — his burnt out, speed freak style, as Mark put it. I asked for where he could identify this because I’d very much like to take a look at these spots. Still, I don’t think it reads very choppy or poorly. Compared to what, to whom? Hey, no need to give any evidence, just call it a bull elephant and move on — the hallmark of contemporary reviewing.

  18. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    What? I’m just saying you expressed your opinion very strongly, and I partially deferred to it for that reason. Not that i’m dismissing it.

    Re reading for prose–I just mean you don’t read a sentence by Dick and go “wow–that showed me something different or luminous” or whatever. You might read a chapter by Dick or a book by him and get that effect. But it’s not achieved on the sentence/paragraph level. And there’s nothing the fuck wrong with that.

    jeff

  19. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I just tend to prefer writers who can do both things–be visionary/idiosyncratic/imaginative and do a lot on the sentence level. Nothing wrong with that, either.

    JeffV

  20. jeff ford says:

    Can a minimalist approach to prose ever be luminous? Or is luminous always about readily obvious complexity? I’m interested in this idea of reading for prose. When we read aren’t we always reading for prose? If you read a book by Dick and you are blown away by it, it means that the prose was successful — no? Maybe even luminous in a way it might be for myself, as an individual reader, to see. That’s why I wanted to see what Mark or anyone means by the prose is not working or lifeless. Completely? In certain spots? I have the same reaction you have to Dick with Asimov. More so probably. I’d say it’s a sense that it’s just the most wooden, flat exposition ever. But I haven’t gone back and tried to figure out what I mean by that or to double check and see if that is actually true and if it still is for me as a reader. All interesting stuff.

  21. Mark Teppo says:

    I probably shouldn’t inject himself in this, but while catching up on the comments, an example sprang to mind.

    Dick (from Chapter 5 of Three Stigmata, and this is chosen at random from about fifteen seconds of browsing): “On the horizon a shape appeared, immense and gray, bloating as it rushed at terrific speed toward them. It had ugly, spiked whiskers.”

    versus

    William Gibson (from Spook Country, p. 10, and I’m only referencing this as an example of line-level prose that stopped me and made me roll it around in my head for a bit and that I’m still working over from the joy of it two days later, and not to interject a digression about authors): “The world outside the restaurant’s windows, beyond words in a red plastic Cantonese neither of them could read, was the color of a silver coin, misplaced for decades in a drawer.”

    I’m with JeffV. I really like PKD for the way his ideas expand my head the longer they’re in there, but I certainly don’t remember much of his prose after I read it. I don’t think it is a detriment necessarily as I’m reading PKD for his ideas–and I know that is what I am getting when I pick up a book of his. Or, another way, I don’t re-read VALIS every couple of years because I want another shot at figuring out how he put his sentences together; I come back to that book because I have gotten a bit smarter in the interim and I might be able to wrestle a bit more out of the ideas he offered.

  22. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    But I do think before I comment more, I’ve got to go back and re-examine Dick. I haven’t read him in awhile.

    Thanks for the example!

    Jeff

  23. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Jeff:

    I’d say a minimalist approach can be luminous–like Tim O’Brian, for example.

    Jeff

  24. jeff ford says:

    Mark: Thanks. But Gibson’s prepositional phrase seems awkward to me. Granted Dick’s is weird too. But more unnerving than a drag. I dig it. So Valis keeps paying off in ideas over years? I guess that has nothing to do with the language they are conveyed in.

  25. jeff ford says:

    Dick’s sentence that is, not a prepositional phrase. Sorry,

  26. Mark Teppo says:

    Part of the reason I find VALIS worth re-reading is that, because of Dick’s readability (as you mention above), I have more opportunity to wrestle with the concepts and ideas than trying to parse his phrasing. Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake offers the same value on re-reading, but the linguistic hump you have to get over to dig into the meat is freakin’ high.

    I think you start getting into what the reader is bringing to the text. After a few years of research and other reading, I’m ready to unpack a bit more of VALIS and Dick’s Exegesis; in that same time, I’m not necessary achieving the same amount of forward progress against the mountain of linguistic chicanery, Irish history, and symbolic mythology that a better understanding of Joyce’s text requires. Does that make Dick any better of a writer, because the depth of his (in-)sanity is more easily plumbed by the general reader? It might make him more accessible, more digestable, to a wider audience, but beyond that, it gets very subjective very quickly. And, boy, that is so out of the author’s hands at that point, isn’t it?

  27. jeff ford says:

    Mark: Good post, but I wasn’t the one arguing for superiority of a given writer or his/her style over another. My point is that the way Dick conveys his ideas is the way he must. For Dick, Dick’s writing is awesome. He can’t convey the ideas of Joyce, only Joyce can. Because Joyce’s approach is complex, does complexity supersede clarity? I don’t even know that I’d call Dick’s approach “clarity.” Or Joyce’s complex for that matter. Perhaps they are things too different to compare? Is there any benefit to comparing Dick to Joyce as far as their “prose” goes. I doubt Joyce could have written Valis. In academia Joyce is always the one they roll out to trump any other writer or any other writing. Sometimes in life you gotta have “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” and Joyce just ain’t gonna do. Only the 3 Stigmata will help, will save, will solve the problem, will entertain, and Finnegan’s Wake just seems a worthless brick. But my question still remains — Do Dick’s ideas that you get out of Valis every year, do they have nothing to do with the language used to convey them.

  28. Mark Teppo says:

    I, um, need to think about that. I think they do, but it’s not (consciously, at least) how I’ve been approaching them (or the level of introspective that has been involved).

  29. jeff ford says:

    Mark and Jeff: My bullshit has plum run out, and I’m repeating myself. I’ve made more sense at times talking in my sleep. Gotta take a break and recharge my crackpot ideas. I’ll check back tomorrow and see if you guys had the heart for any more. Thanks.

  30. ed says:

    I’ll jump again into this interesting discussion later, but for now I’ll just say: Jeff Ford, you ain’t so much a crackpot!

  31. CBO says:

    The notion that PKD couldn’t write at the sentence level is such a cliche, another example of good, old fashioned American GroupThink. And let me ask you this: If PKD couldn’t write, what does that say about all of the people who have read him and enjoyed his prose? That they don’t know how to read, or what “GOOD” writing is? Yes, PKD wrote some leaden lines, but who hasn’t? You mean to tell me that some of Pynchon’s work isn’t incomprehensible? Even Pynchon admits that when he looks back at GR he has no idea what the hell he was talking about, and you don’t think that relates to the way he wrote his sentences? The reason people are reacting to Gopnick’s piece is because the tone was utterly snotty, which is totally par for the course in the case of the New Yorker. Another flame job on a corpse. And stop trying to convince everyone that being a SF writer in the 60′s was a smart career choice. Being a genre writer is a risk. Writing for tony NYC lifestyle mags is the smart career choice. Let me make an analogy. Rob Sheffield writes a piece in Rolling Stone that basically says, Hey, I know everyone loves The Velvet Underground, but here’s why they weren’t as good as everyone says they were, and it has to do with the fact that The Velvet Underground had a hard time writing a melody, just listen to Sister Ray. Some guy who writes for a magazine that has never championed artists on the margins goes out of its way, 30 years later, to point out why one of these artists isn’t really worthy of postumous kudos. That’s what Gopnick’s piece is about, to me. Just one more established institution trying it’s best to make sure that the rabble doesn’t storm the gates.

  32. Dickesode « Citizen Arnold says:

    [...] [SON OF UPDATE: So has Jeff VanderMeer.] [...]

  33. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    CBO–I think you’re overstating it. The overreaction to this piece is just frankly funny to me. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to say “I enjoy PKD, but I don’t read him for his prose style.” End of story. The fact is, PKD was undervalued to begin with and now is being over-valued. Some of his stuff is just frankly unreadable. I also don’t think it’s all a problem to say, yeah, some people who enjoy Dick don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. They’re entitled to enjoy him, but they’re not entitled to defend him in ways that are, frankly, indefensible.

    And I don’t think Jeff Ford is a crackpot in this discussion, either.

    JeffV

  34. jeff ford says:

    I insist I’m a crackpot.

  35. Josh says:

    Jeff Ford, anent examples of PKD that sound kind of amphetamined:

    “The Maury Souza affair, he realized; it preyed vulturely on him, made a trough of his brain.”

    “On this score, Lars Powderdry said to himself, I have failed as completely as, formerly, I let them down authentic, in time of need, weapons-wise.”

    My theory is that Jeff Ford, who we all know has a fookin’ gorgeous prose style, doesn’t *need* to get that aesthetic rush out of other people’s work on accounta he can do it for himself.

    The things that I dislike in the Gopnick piece have to do with evaluation of individual PKD works and with his sense of what’s important in PKD, both of which are problems that don’t stem from his being an “outsider” to the SF field. On the other hand, JeffV’s brilliant insight, “It makes it seem as if the thing the mainstream finds tolerable about genre is its imagination but not its craft.” is, I think, the reality of the situation; and Gopnick’s evaluative judgments, which tend to praise the more poorly-written Dick novels over the ones he expended more care upon, are useful for that agenda.

    I *do* find some passages in PKD memorable, not for the style but for what they reveal about the characters (Mr Tagomi, Angel Archer, that Woody Harrelson guy from A Scanner Darkly).

  36. jeff ford says:

    Josh: Love those two examples, and yes, I agree, they are beyond immediate comprhension — the second one beyond even careful consideration. Thanks!

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