"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

They Love Dick

It's official: Philip K. Dick is a great writer, according to the Library of America. As the Galley Cat at Media Bistro reports:
Buried at the tail end of Mark Sarvas's interview with Jonathan Lethem comes news of one project on the novelist's plate: "I'm helping preside over the utter and irreversible canonization of one of my (formerly outsider) heroes, Philip K. Dick: I'm writing endnotes for The Library of America, which is doing a volume of four of his novels from the sixties, which I also helped select."
I suppose that if Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and H. P. Lovecraft are great writers, then Dick is too. But in my view, this event is most important as further evidence of how poor the mainstream American novel was during the previous century. Solid but unspectactular and fairly uninsightful genre authors (though this last limitation does not apply to Dick) are touted as among the best the nation had to offer, and this is true because the mainstream novelists were so often confused, self-important, and wrongheaded.

A good many of Philip K. Dick's books and stories are well worth reading, but he really worked largely on frankly pulp material. His great contribution was to convey interesting, provocative, and important ideas in a pulp context, but that is like making a really fast production automobile. It's fast, but it can't run with the custom jobbies.

Dick stands out as an author because the "custom cars" of his time were so shabby.

PKD's prose was usually serviceable at best, although better than, say, Theodore Drieser's glop. But whereas Dreiser's characterizations could be immensely powerful and the conflicts highly real and dramatic, Dick's characters are usually unable to sustain much interest, and the stories depend almost entirely on their ideas and interesting plot angles. Some of those concepts and ideas are so good that his writings have gained a strong foothold in the culture through film adaptations. For that reason, he's certainly one of the more important American writers of the second half of the twentieth century.

Philip K. Dick was indeed a great pulp writer, if there can be such a thing, and a very good writer within his limits. I'll call him a very good writer overall when at his best. And his elevation to Library of America status points out once again that genre literature, despite its limitations, was where it was at in American literature during the past century.

From Karnick on Culture.


Francis W. Porretto said...

But what qualifies a writer as "great?"

-- Widespread critical acclaim?
-- Volume of sales?
-- The length of time his works have been read?
-- His avoidance of modifiers?
-- The effulgence of his imagery?
-- Some other criterion?

Hm. Seems we might need a Federal Writers' Standards Board. But then prosodic licensure would hardly be far away.

For my money, a great writer is one who inspires me to great emotion. Yes, it's a subjective criterion, but I can think of no better one. Philip K. Dick succeeded at that a few times, albeit not with every story. So: How shall I judge Dick, or any writer, great, even if permitted to use my criterion?

-- By the number of times he succeeded in rousing me to great emotion?
-- By the percentage of times he did so?
-- For having done so even once?
-- By the ratio of his successes to his Flesch index?

I think you can see where this is going.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Masterful, Mr. Karnick. For the record, I like Dick, too.

Re Mr. Porretto's take, I do think that surviving your life and times is a test of greatness.

Saw something on Discovery Channel, that said after Upton Sinclair published his expose of the meatpacking industry, "The Jungle," in 1906, US meat consumption was almost immediately cut in half.

It was perhaps a timeless tale of man's inhumanity to fellow man and his beasts as well, but as Sinclair himself noted, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

I don't know anyone who's actually read "The Jungle," including me, but it was surely one of the most influential novels of the 20th century. It is said that "The Jungle" is somewhat badly written, but the same is said of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which helped change the course of human events in the 19th century. (Nobody reads that anymore, either.)

"Influence" or "importance" might be used to describe how many subsequent artists copied or aped a certain work that redefined excellence, and I certainly don't mean to conflate impact with excellence. Perhaps Thomas Pynchon is the god they say he is.

But I do know that P.K. Dick, for all his gifts and insight, is not a Sinclair or Beecher Stowe. And he hasn't as yet been compared to Pynchon either, as far as I know.