Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Clumsiness in the Face of a Brilliant Narrative Mind

In my last post I wondered about the quantity of bad writing readers are willing to wade through in the name of story. In light of this, and the question of genre writing (and genre "ghettoes"), I was intrigued by this review by J F Quackenbush of Philip K. Dick's Confessions of a Crap Artist, at Wet Asphalt. The following passage in particular:
Dick's prose, and hence the true problem he presents to critical appraisal, is often slapdash, sloppy, and amateurish. This clumsiness in the face of the brilliant inventive narrative mind behind it has a way of detaching the reader, and with Confessions the themes of alienation and misunderstanding that so permeate his work function on that detachment in such a way as to leave the reader alienated himself, and yet completely engrossed. Here Dick's flaws as a stylist actually serve to heighten the reader's experience, and the obvious comparison is to much more well-regarded technicians like Thomas Pynchon or William Gaddis whose prose often reflects stylistically and structurally the themes and moods of the story. From this, it is apparent that Dick is postmodern in a very unselfconscious way. Dick's postmodernism is a product of neurosis and style, and does not rely on the skillful artifice of a Pynchon or a Barth to convey the images and feelings of a postmodern world adrift in it's own hypochondria. Dick himself is a product of that world, the author himself didn't seem to understand why it was that he wasn't accepted as a more mainstream author, and had an ironic and good-humored detachment from the insanity of many of his own beliefs. Philip K. Dick is often held forth as an example of the best that Science Fiction has to offer, and in a way that's true, but at the same time it reveals some of the failings of the Sci Fi ghetto. Confessions of a Crap Artist, relying for success so heavily not just on the readers understanding of Philip K. Dick the individual, but also on the accidental brilliance of Dick's mediocre prose, is (almost) accidentally brilliant. To offer Philip K. Dick as one of the great writers of the 20th Century, as many have done, is therefore not unproblematic. Like Frank Herbert, Dick has an almost cult-like following who seem to be almost completely unaware of the many technical flaws and rough edges to the works of the respective men. Of course, Dick isn't nearly as inept as Herbert, and in that way it's an unfair comparison, at the same time the comparison is revealing as one of the reasons that Science Fiction authors have remained so long in their ghetto, and that is the overly sympathetic reading that Sci Fi authors often receive from their fan base. This is, I think, a critical distinction between the work of Literary authors and authors working in the various genre ghettoes.
There's a lot to unpack here, and I'm not going to try to do it in this post, not least because I've never read anything by Dick. But I think Quackenbush touches on points that make various online literary debates so difficult. Too often readers seem to be talking past each other. People read for different reasons, with different ends in mind, so when we all show up online, with our overlapping reading communities, confusion seems inevitable.

On a related note, Steve Mitchelmore posted today about beginning to read a thriller:
I had no expectations at all and it began well. The main character was introduced in crisp prose with a wonderful pulse. I learned of his mundanely pleasant life, his mysterious girlfriend and the suggestion of a dark cloud waiting to float over and block out the sunlight. No trouble. I've read many infinitely worse “literary” novels. Yet it was here that I put the book down. Now that a world had opened up, I wanted more. I wanted the whole book to be like this; a book of beginnings, sunlight ahead, and I knew that was not going to happen. That dark cloud scuttled over soon enough.
Fantastic. I don't mean anything like "yay, Steve! screw that genre crap!" Rather, Steve knows what kind of writing he needs, and he is able to articulate it, in his inimitable fashion. But I suspect that this post is incoherent to a lot of readers. And I don't mean that to sound condescending. I mean that, hell, I very likely would not have stopped reading a book that got off to the kind of start Steve describes, even if I think I do know what he means by "book of beginnings" (in some respects, I think Paul Auster is like this). But I'm not quite as confident about what kind of writing I need. I could say I have different needs at different times, and to some extent that's true. But it's becoming less and less true the more I read. I'm less and less interested in being up to date, or in reading a little of everything, and more interested in fulfilling some ill-defined literary desire I have. A desire I'm trying to define. I lack the discipline, in an odd way. I still feel compelled to finish a book, if it's at least passingly entertaining, even if it doesn't really address a deeper need, and even as I increasingly resent being pulled along by plot.

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Anonymous mr. waggish said...

In line with what you say, Mr. Quackenbush does a disservice to Dick. Dick's prose is as clunky as any pulp writer's, but a damn sight better than Olaf Stapledon, Doris Lessing, Dreiser, or the worst of Sinclair Lewis. Dick can get away with it because he doesn't need any more than functional prose to play out his strengths, which are *not* what people think they are (neither character nor speculation nor psychology). And Dick's "postmodernism," which is not postmodernism as much as it is metaphysical inquiry, is far more calculated than it superficially appears.

Stanislaw Lem was sharp enough to recognize Dick as possessing very distinct qualities, and his essay on Dick, reprinted in Microworlds, is excellent. Lem recommends Dick's Ubik, as do I.

April 04, 2007 1:10 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Thanks for the interesting comment and the recommendation, Mr. Waggish. I'll take a look at Ubik.

April 04, 2007 10:08 AM  
Blogger Scraps said...

A few points. First, it's untrue that Dick's flaws are or were unperceived and unnoted by the science fiction field. It's always been remarked that his strengths were offset by stylistic flaws, and that his work ranged from brilliant to awful. Second, Confession of a Crap Artist was an early book (though it was published late); Dick improved a great deal as a stylist, and there is very little clunkiness in his post-1970 work. Third, it's not a genre book -- it's not science fiction -- and like the rest of his non-sf work, it has never attained that much reputation with his fanbase (I don't remember ever seeing it listed among his best books), so I don't see how it has anything to do with the overrating of his skills by his fans (and I will acknowledge that many of his fans do overrate him, but also point out that this has been abetted by a lazy mainstream critical press that elevated Dick to the best science fiction had to offer while remaining blissfully ignorant of the many writers in the field who are better stylists. Singling out Dick has allowed the literary world to preserve their idea that science fiction is fundamentally crude but vigorous -- primitive -- literature, to be occasionally appreciated in a slumming way, while ignoring excellent stylists like Sturgeon, Russ, Delany, Disch, Wolfe, unless, like Delany and Russ, they can be appreciated on political grounds.

April 04, 2007 1:34 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

For what it's worth, in the beginning of the review, Quackenbush says that Confessions of a Crap Artist is indeed not science fiction, then, in the paragraph after the one I quoted above, he goes on to say the following: "On the one hand, Confessions may be as good as Science Fiction gets. On the other hand, calling it a Science Fiction novel seems to stretch the definition of the term beyond the breaking point. And it is here, in the borders of the genre, that the truly unfortunate aspect of the way the Science Fiction community has embraced its ghettoization is revealed. While Confessions is undoubtedly Dick's best work, it is also one of his least well known."

I have to thank you for first alerting me to Gene Wolfe. I still have a post on Book of the New Sun in the works...

April 04, 2007 1:46 PM  
Blogger Scraps said...

I look forward to that! Welcome to the "frenzy of interpretation" (in, if I recall correctly, John Clute's words).

I don't know what to say to the idea that Confessions of a Crap Artist is Dick's best work. I don't think it's even the best of his early mainstream attempts (I'd probably pick The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike).

April 04, 2007 2:10 PM  
Anonymous mr waggish said...

Don't forget John Crowley! One of the best stylists the field has ever known, particularly Engine Summer. I think that with more self-consciously arty sorts like Kelly Link and Jonathan Lethem hitting it big, the ghettoization is seeing more crossover these days, but as always, the highbrows will be the last to catch up.

I disagree on the post-70s work, though; with the exception of A Scanner Darkly, it's generally flabby next to the best of his 60s efforts, and I always found the Valis trilogy downright dreary. Along with Ubik, Three Stigmata and Martian Time-slip are both quite remarkable, I think.

And as far as style goes, Dick was writing so fast that it's amazing he had as many good books as he did. Ford Madox Ford had a much-lower hit ratio: those in the know say about 6 of his 80+ novels are any good.

Now Gene Wolfe, that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish! I think he does the field harm by reaching far beyond his grasp and allowing people to look at him and say, "Oh, look how cute, he's trying to be literary!" (and that's before they know his politics!) but I know many respectable sorts who disagree with me. Maybe I should write that long-simmering post on Book of the New Sun....

April 05, 2007 1:28 AM  
Blogger Scraps said...

Wolfe would disdain the idea that he's trying to be literary. He's not trying to be anything more than a great science fiction writer. (It should go without saying that that is as lofty a goal as trying to be any other kind of great writer.) I think his grasp is immense, so I probably wouldn't be the most sympathetic audience to the notion that his reach exceeds his grasp (though it often seems to exceed the garsp of reviewers).

As soon as I posted, I regretted not including Crowley.

April 05, 2007 1:07 PM  
Anonymous Jay said...

thanks for the link! I have to agree with what mr waggish says. I think that the sloppiness in Dick is there all the way up to the end. Probably one of my favorite Dick novels is Radio Free Albemuth which he had cleaned up and revised at the very end of his life, and it still suffers from a lot of the stilted sentence structure and downright sloppy grammar that is there in The Man in the High Castle or Clans of the Alphane Moon. Or in Flow My Tears the Policeman Said or A Scanner Darkly for that matter.

Also, while it's true that Dick wrote very quickly, his novels are also very short. I often will breeze through one in an evening, although I do that less often the closer I get to having read everything he's written. So I think it's a bit of a cop out to excuse his sloppiness by his speed. Hemingway also wrote fast and managed to write well, and I think that they're in the same league of flawed American Lit giants so it's a fair comparison.

That having been said, I have to say I find a lot of the supposedly "good writers" in science fiction tedious. Sturgeon for sure, since he was mentioned in another comment. But also some of the other supposed bright lights mentioned by other commentors like Samuel R. Delany. Dick, on the other hand, wrote books that i find endlessly entertaining and satisfying. That's not something that I can say of the crossover writers at present like Link, Lethem, and certainly Neal Stevenson.

Anyway, it's very nice to see oneself quoted at length, thanks again.

April 05, 2007 8:13 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi, Jay, thanks for dropping by. I'll have to sample some PKD one of these days. I imagine I'll go for the few recommended by Mr. Waggish...

Speaking of which, Mr. Waggish, I'll certainly be interested in reading what you have to say about Book of the New Sun, but I hope you don't get your long-simmering post up before I get mine up!

I was going to chime in on Crowley, too. Of course I loved Little, Big. I'm really looking forward to reading his Aegypt series...

April 06, 2007 10:20 AM  

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