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.