Friday, August 31, 2007

I Say End Your Gopnik-Hating Days, And Merely Dislike Him


Sorry to be away so long, but I just finished the first week of the semester with four new classes. My second-year literature students will be starting The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch next week. I can't believe how long it's taking to blog that book. I guess I should have envisioned it as a long-term project.

But on to Gopnik's piece in The New Yorker.

Almost all serious Dick-heads are decrying the recent PKD article in The New Yorker (a magazine PKD dreamed of appearing and being taken seriously in) titled "Blows to the Empire" so let's take a look at some of the harsher criticism Gopnik levels at Dick:

"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. He flogs these types into semi-life by means of Ellery Queen devices, including the depressing one of funny names. Then, there is the narrative falsely propelled by the one-sentence paragraph, the internal monologue that really isn’t, and sometimes both together"

I notice in the comments section here at TDH that many Dick-heads enjoy finding these recurring characters in Dick's books: Is Mrs Hnatt/Mayerson the dark-haired girl? Are 'Donna' and 'Angel Archer' the same character? Is 'Angel' just an older 'Donna'? So obviously we don't mind Dick's 'mangy rabbits' -- And by the way, I don't think Horselover Fats is a 'mangy rabbit' at all.

What else you got Gopnik?:

"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."

Well that's harsh, but you know what? My friends and family who have read PKD at my insistence and didn't like it say this expresses exactly how they felt. Various literature appeals to various tastes; we don't all have to like Hemingway, or Dickens, or Pynchon, or Goethe. Different strokes for different folks.

What about some of the good stuff Gopnik said?:

"What is moving in Dick’s madness is his insistence that the surest sign of the madness of the world outside him is the violence that we accept as normal."

Of course it should read "What is moving in Dick's work is his insistence that surest sign of the madness of the world outside him is the violence we accept as normal" but who cares? It's still one of the most succinct summations of Dick's moral vision I have ever heard. Almost as good as "sometimes the only sane response to an insane world is insanity" -- by the way Mulder says that in an episode of the X-Files.

I'd like to think that if Dick were alive to read Gopnik's piece he would focus on the beauty and accuracy of that one line and forget about the other stuff. I think he would be so moved by the serious treatment Gopnik gives him he might forgive him for some of his criticism.

Bottom line, Dick's stature as an artist is changing. He's stepped onto the field with Faulkner, Hemingway, Joyce, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and people in general are incredibly harsh with their judgments of those kinds of authors. I've heard students say, "I can't stand Hemingway; I absolutely loathe him! Woman-hating drunk!"

In a recent email Jonathan Lethem wrote:

"Superficial and pigeon-holing impressions ("Wasn't Robert Lowell a schizophrenic? Faulkner a drunk?" etc.) go part-and-parcel with the level of recognition PKD has now attained. His strengths and weaknesses, paradoxes and inconsistencies, the whole wealth of everything he represented and had to offer -- it belongs to everyone now."

But not everybody's going to get it - thankfully. Frankly, I might worry about a middle-America that is reading PKD as widely as they they read, say, The Great Gatsby. Part of Dick's charge comes from his counter-culture perspective, his opportunity to write against the grain. I think Dick must exist in opposition to mainstream thought, while at the same time appealing to it. That's how satire works.

Aren't you glad that the real appreciation of Philip K Dick, the kind that takes a nuanced view of his life and his "sanity," will still be predominately a cult activity? I am.

While Gopnik quotes a few PKD paragraphs to support his allegation of bad writing, he doesn't ever bother to show us any good Dick paragraphs -- which might lead one to the false impression that there are no well-written paragraphs in any of Dick's work. Here's one, from the end of A Scanner Darkly:

"This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed -- run over, maimed, destroyed -- but they continued to play anyhow. We really all were very happy for a while, sitting around not toiling but just bullshitting and playing... There is no moral in this novel; it is not bourgeois; it does not say they were wrong to play when they should have toiled; it just tells what the consequences were.... If there was any "sin," it was that these people wanted to keep on having fun forever. [...] In Memoriam. These were comrades whom I had; there are no better. They remain in my mind, and the enemy will never be forgiven. The "enemy" was their mistake in playing. Let them all play again, in some other way, and let them be happy."

It seems like the obvious, yet missing, paragraph in Gopnik's piece might have started something like this: 'So with all these strikes against him as a writer why is Philip K Dick in the Library of America?' But that's what's missing. Gopnik never really offers a satisfying explanation for Dick's growing reputation and that makes me think perhaps Gopnik is a snob who believes that the Library of America has lost its way, that Lovercraft's and Dick's LoA releases are a blight on the venerable arbiter of the American canon. And if that's his opinion, I'll throw my cold, dry martini in his face at one of those fancy cocktail parties. I'll put on my Thurston Howell III voice and say, 'Say Gopnik wasn't it Balzac who said...' and then BAM! Drink in the face! Who am I kidding? I'll never get invited to that party.

18 comments:

palmer_eldritch said...

Well said, ragle - and the New Yorker cover you chose illustrates the attitude of the Gopnicks of this world exactly.

Wasta said...

Yes, that sums up the New Yorker piece nicely. Let's forget Gopnick. PKD will be read when everyone has forgotten Gopnick.

palmer_eldritch said...

And check out this bit from the Amazon blurb on one of his books -

"A self-described 'comic-sentimental essayist', Gopnik chose the romance of Paris in its particulars as his subject. Gopnik falls in unabashed love with what he calls Paris's commonplace civilisation..."

'Commonplace civilization' !!

OK, I'll shut up about the guy now.

Chaser said...

Why let him off the hook? If he's done a blatant disservice to Philip K. Dick's life and work, we should call him on it.

One question that hasn't been answered yet is: Was Mr. Gopnik "assigned" to do this piece by an editor at The New Yorker, or was it his own suggestion?

Another question would be, did he do background research for the article, and if he did, was it done by himself, or a staff researcher?

As for how he is viewed by his peers, check out a book review by James Wolcott, in the February 12th, 2007 issue of The New Republic, of Mr. Gopnik's book, Through the Children's Gate. (Both Wolcott and Gopnik have won writing awards from The American Society Of Magazine Editors)

At the end of the first paragraph, Mr. Wolcott writes: "It isn't that Gopnik is ungifted or imperceptive, or a slickster trickster like his colleague Malcolm Gladwell, who markets marketing. He is avidly talented and spongily absorbent, an earnest little eager beaver whose twitchy aura of neediness makes him hard to dislike until the preciosity simply becomes too much."

palmer_eldritch said...

So even his fellow slummers think he's a bit 'much'? Well, that figures.

The tragedy is that, being a professional writer, Gopnik is too close to his own idea of what constitutes 'proper' writing.

The chaps at the recent PKD Appreciation Day over here in Nottingham were the same - desperate to not appear simply as mindless Philip K Dick-olytes, they were reduced to trotting out the same, tired criticisms of PKD which have probably been around since he first started trying to achieve publication.

I think, perhaps, that they don't like PKD's running with ideas - they want purple prose, they want Dostoevsky-to-go. PKD is too 'sparse' for them, too demanding of the reader, seeking collusion with them in the creation of thoughts alongside the story.

They want the moon on a stick.

Chaser said...

I do think you're on the right track, Mr. Eldritch. The "literary elite" and "academic pundits" have trouble dealing with anything that goes against THEIR status quo, that dares to challenge their latest scholarly fad, i.e., postmodernism. They are far more interested in "publish-or-perish" points to hopefully attain tenure. (And, my, how a certain few "academics" have mightily attempted to kidnap Philip K. Dick to be their postmodern poster child!)

And Philip K. Dick does NOT neatly fit into any of their "isms." His work, his creativity, his ideas, are pluralistic and multi-layered. He wrote from an eclectic and iconoclastic perspective, daring to challenge the status quo notions of "What is realtiy," and "What is human-ness."

palmer_eldritch said...

And that's the cardinal sin, isn't it - not fitting into a particular marketing 'box'. When all else fails, the Gopniks of this world seem to fall back on 'genre writer' as a type - usually as a final put-down. That always makes me laugh.

Chaser said...

You are quite right Mr. Eldritch about the kind of exegetical "final put down" by the Gopniks of this world, and their academic allies.

But what is sad and discouraging is how much of a pandemic this "critical mindset" is, and how little it is challenged, albeit it in hard copy or on the Internet.

I would argue it's part of "modern" society's perverse penchant for the "quick-and-convenient," something that can be obtained at a drive-up window, or delivered right to your door. One certainly wouldn't want to have to actually put in substantial time and effort to really THINK about a particular writer, to ask cogent questions about the writer's works and life, to actually take him seriously with re-reading and research.

Chris said...

i think the thing that bothers me about this article(in the new yorker) most is that someone who might have read dick would be turned off by reading this junk. and there are some very straight ahead dick books. some that read like alot of great sci fi without so much drama or conversation and then at the end of the story zing! the bomb is dropped. all is revealed... or not. those are some of his best stories imo.
game of death is one example. it starts like a lot of pkd stories then goes into a really serious and thrilling story. then the end just gets you. and its in a way that only pkd can do it.
but i guess you are right it just keeps pkd underground and thins the herd a bit.
but i have to say i don't think he has read much pkd.

Chaser said...

Excellent point, Chris, your last sentence. I got that feeling too, that Mr. Gopnik hasn't read very much of Philip K. Dick's fiction OR non-fiction (essays, letters, interviews). And what he has read are the usual small group of "best known" works favored by academics, or that have a movie tie-in, such as the contents of The Library Of America volume.

Could also be that he was given this assignment by an assistant editor at The New Yorker, then did so cursory research, or had it done for him by a staff Researcher for The New Yorker magazine.

Better yet, at The New Yorker magazine website, this "article" by Mr. Gopnik is categorized as a "book review," though it sure doesn't read like one.

Kevin Crouse said...

I too was initially a bit disgruntled upon first reading of the Gopnik piece -- thinking: once again, people who are seriously ingrained into the current version of reality will have trouble seeing the other possibilities. But after some reflection and a second read, I've come to think that there is much for us dyed-in-the-wool followers to take away from this article.

It is very, very true that PKD was better with ideas than he was with writing. Titles like The Zap Gun paint the case perfectly: bizarre and brilliant plot devices and themes, but a mess of a book. I think we are willing to overlook these frequent speedfreak constructions over the average reader because we know the wealth inherent within his body of work after reading many, many titles. Casual readers do not step to the plate with that knowledge... and I feel sorry for the reader who picks up one of the lesser works as an introduction. Gopnik makes the observation that perhaps one of the reasons PKD is so lauded outside of the States is because the translations of his works transcend his prose and render the ideas themselves in a better fashion. I would agree.

But the ultimate strike against Gopnik from this article is that he reveals himself as someone who really believes in the world that is sold to us via television and the elite money peeps. Phil had madness, but that does not mean he was crazy. The beauty of PKD -- and of being turned on to his ideas and worldviews -- is that all of that manufactured illusionary veneer drops and we are left with nothing but energy and our souls. To suggest that the world is not at all what it seems is an unsettling and/or silly thought to the critics and tastemakers of high culture who cling desperately to the world in which their name has become so invested.

Ultimately, PKD is going to keep growing beyond our favored cult trappings -- and in that regard I am happy about this LoA release, as it will at least offer up some of the stronger works to the first time reader. For every head illuminated, so moves forward the fight against the black iron prison. In this regard, Gopnik illustrated that Phil's perecption and rebellion against all kinds of Empires is a worthy and eternally relevant universal theme. It is for this reason that PKD should be lauded.

Gabriel Mckee said...

I was surprised at the way that PKD fans turned on this article-- when I first heard about it, it was all positive; then slowly people started to complain about the "bad writer" paragraph, and now everybody's jumping over each other to say that they hate Gopnik more than the next guy.

But you're missing the forest for the trees, folks! Gopnik *likes* Philip K. Dick. Not only that, he really understands the meaning of his work. He calls him a "bad writer"? By the standards of the New Yorker, he was. (Would they have published "War With the Fnools"? I don't think so.) He re-uses plots and characters. He often really, really needed a good editor. And for all that we fans like to hold up the really, really good prose bits (of which there are certainly many), "Vulcan's Hammer" is pretty darned flat. Someone who doesn't know anything about PKD but decides to buy a book is going to go to their local bookstore and see 42-odd novels staring at them-- all the in-print Vintage stuff. How are they supposed to know that "Ubik" is better than "The Crack in Space"?

Gopnik's point with the "bad writer" bit is to say: "You, the intellectual reader of the New Yorker, don't read this kind of stuff. Here's why you *should.*" And that doesn't do a disservice to anybody but Ferris F. Fremont.

Chaser said...

I note, Mr. Mckee, that you've posted the above at your own blog site as well: sfgospel.typepad.com/sf_gospel/

And you are the author of:
Pink Beams Of Light From The God In The Gutter: The Science-Ficitonal Religion of Philip K. Dick, University Press of America, 2004.

But it's not clear to me why you so stridently come to the defense of Mr. Gopnik's "book review" in The New Yorker magazine.

You're not implying, are you, that we should give some kind of "unquestioning allegiance" to his piece because it was in The New Yorker?

That we should NOT ask any kind of hard, critical thinking questions about ANY written work about Philip K. Dick? Even if it appears in The New Yorker magazine?

I should think one would want to cogently consider what is actually there on the page, and not impose our own ideological theory for particular critical purposes.

We should be reading Mr. Gopnik, and Philip K. Dick, without such ideological blinders.

Criticism lies very much, as Aristotle wrote about "beauty," in the eye of the beholder.

Gabriel Mckee said...

Chaser--
No, I'm not implying any of those things. What, pray tell, are you implying about me? ("Ideological blinders"? Why the hyperbole?) I just think the anger people are directing at this piece is... well... dumb. The guy likes PKD, for crying out loud, and many are treating this article like it's some kind of screed. My defense isn't "strident" (and certainly not as "strident" as your comments here are!)-- I'm just irritated by the general knee-jerkiness of my fellow PKD fans' reactions to mainstream coverage.

Chaser said...

If, Mr. Mckee, by "strident" you mean "loud and harsh" or "shrill," perhaps I am.

And if by "hyperbole" you are suggesting I engage in extravagant or exaggerated statements to express strong feeling or inculcate a strong impression, yes, definitely.

Though my "misguided" intent is to be a Voltairean gadfly or devil's advocate.

It is a side effect of reading, re-reading, studying and researching Philip K. Dick since the late 1970s. And now coping with a LOT of Internet "stuff" that has a strong taint of sloppy thinking or unquestioning reactions.

Perhaps it would have been more prudent to apply some actual criteria to Mr. Gopnik's "book review" about Philip K. Dick, say, this excerpt from a 2006 interview by Alden Mudge at Book Page American's Book Review:

"For me what makes the essay such a miraculous form is that it's the only form where ideas and emotions walk hand-in-hand.... with the essay, that's exactly what you're trying to do -- find a subject that simultaneously sets off a chain of thought and sets off an association of feeling. When as essay works successfully, it is because it manages to fire on both sets of neurons at once."

I take it that "both sets of neurons" refers to chain of thought (ideas) and association of feeling (emotions). Would you agree with this assessment?

The question now is, can one find both of these in Mr. Gopnik's "book review" about Philip K. Dick?

Gabriel Mckee said...

One last response, which will be my final word on the matter, and this only offered because it was asked:
Yes, I see both ideas and emotions in Gopnik's essay, particularly in the closing section on 2-3-74. There's value in the essay, and I contend that his take on Dick's life is both insightful and understanding. It seems to me that it's knee-jerk reactions to word choice ("bad writing" and "madness" are both used more rhetorically than pejoratively, I think) rather than actual examination of content that's making people hate this essay. I also think that it's possible to have a non-disgusted reaction tp the essay without "sloppy thinking or unquestioning reactions." If you want to know more about my opinion on this essay, I refer you to my initial post about it on SF Gospel:
http://sfgospel.typepad.com/sf_gospel/2007/08/philip-k-dick-i.html

And finally, a nit-pick of my own: the essay is not identified as a "book review"; it's just in the Books section. And we can at least agree that Dick is known for writing books, yes?

slhamlet said...

I finally read Gopnik's piece, and I think it's generating an unreasonably angry fanboy reaction here. Sure, he gets a few things wrong. (Contrary to what Gopnik thinks, Dick did pine for non-SF literary acceptance, as *Confession of a Crap Artist* and his other mainstream novels attest, and he forgot another major Dick character type: the man in authority suddenly made so vulnerable you reluctantly sympathize with him.) But Gopnik is clearly a fan, citing even obscure Dick novels like *Clans of the Alphane Moon* and providing some great insight on the totally weird *Valis*. Only true hardcore Dick fans read *Valis*-- and love it. Gopnik loves *Valis*.

But come on: Dick is usually a sloppy, ham-fisted writer. He'd have probably been the first to admit that, because he wrote a lot of stuff for low wages, and the first-draft quality of the writing shows that. His marvelous ideas carry him through, of course, but there's no point pretending otherwise. Only in a handful of his best books does he actually take the time to bear down and make his prose shine.

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