Thursday, May 17, 2007

PKD Article in Newsweak

The PKD-article machine has spit out yet another in a long line of superficial and generic summaries of Dick's career to coincide with the Library of America release. This time it's in the current issue of Newsweek Magazine (article available online). Frankly, this article is the worst one yet, and as I writing teacher I'd like to explore the problems here at some length.

Malcolm Jones begins the article with this paragraph:
"If there is anyone who would not understand Philip K. Dick's inclusion in the Library of America—those uniform editions of what the Library calls the "best and most significant" American literature—it would be Dick himself. It isn't that he didn't think he deserved to be taken seriously. The honor simply would not fit with the way he saw the world: in his novels, the future is always a sorrier version of the present, a copy of a copy of a copy."

Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue does it? The first assertion in this article is that Dick would not understand his inclusion in the LoA. This initial premise is desperately wrong. Jones has composed a sentence that sounded good to his ear (though not particularly lyrical to mine), and apparently did not look carefully enough at the content of the sentence to see that it simply doesn't make sense: of course Dick would understand his inclusion in the LoA. PKD thought his work was as highbrow as the next guy and he pined for years for this level of respect; he would have loved this, not been confused by it. But then Jones falls even further into unthinking jargon, concluding the paragraph and I guess the initial assertion by arguing that PKD saw the world as a depressing place and therefor not the kind of reality in which he might ever receive recognition. There are a few holes in Jones' logic to say the least but let's continue.

Jones continues a few paragraphs later:
"Judged by conventional critical yardsticks, Dick falls short of greatness. His plots creak. Reading his prose can feel like being assaulted with a blunt instrument. But the usual standards don't really work with him. Almost despite himself, it often seems, he created an atmosphere of paranoia, fear and psychological imprisonment that grips a reader like a waking nightmare. And greatness in art is always a subjective thing"

I have come to expect these kinds of paragraphs in student writing but Newsweek should be embarrassed by this. Follow the train of thought backwards from the end of the paragraph to the beginning:

Art is subjective
Dick created gripping paranoid realities.
Conventional artistic standards don't apply to Dick.
Dick's prose is ham-fisted.
Dick's plots are weak.
Judged by conventional standards Dick's work falls short.

Can you count the number of contradictions in this paragraph? In other words if art is subjective then what constitutes a "creaky" plot? If art is subjective, what is artful prose and what is artless? And who makes these determinations?

But here are the lines that really speak to a profound inability to understand what the words you have written on the page actually mean:
"Almost despite himself, it often seems, he created an atmosphere of paranoia, fear and psychological imprisonment that grips a reader like a waking nightmare."

How can an author succeed in spite of himself? The thing about writing fiction is that the author has a God-like power to control every aspect of the text. Every word in a novel is there because the author feels it adds something to the work. If the book achieves a desired affect it cannot achieve it in spite of some aspect of the author's effort... Well maybe once or twice an author gets away with a mistake or two, but Dick wrote at least 15 fantastic novels. To say that his work achieves its effect by resonating with current times, that Dick has inadvertently captured our "post-modern zeitgeist" is to imply this canonization is a perfect storm of happenstance rather than well-earned recognition of a life completely dedicated to the immense universe he created for us to forever find ourselves in.


Anonymous said...

"His prose was a little flaky and his genre a bit dodgy..." No wonder the journos are so concerned about blogging - this reads like a blog entry!

I can only think that, when the 'Philip K Dick Article' button is pressed, snobbery suffuses what comes out. The writer cannot accept PKD's writing for what it is - there always has to be surprise that a sci-fi writer is being considered in the same light as all the 'real literature. I believe the line is "being damned by faint praise".

Nicholas Musurca said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nicholas Musurca said...

If I read one more article calling Dick's prose lousy, I'm going to scream. Who started this trend? Certainly not anyone who had actually read one of his novels.

Of course, among all the publications running the usual round of PKD articles, did you really expect the brilliant analysis of the author's oeuvre to come from Newsweek?

Anonymous said...

What would you say the 15 fantastic novels are? IS radio Free Albemuth in the running?

Anonymous said...

The tone of voice in these type of articles reminds me of that segment in the evening news report just before sports when they interview the local man whose cat can meow the pledge of allegiance.

Sure the horsemeat-eating shlub from the Bay can't actually write worth a damn but isn't it adorable how he tackles big-boy themes like the nature of reality? And without so much as an MFA from Vassar. Fancy that!

Anonymous said...

"when the Library makes room for Dick, or for H. P. Lovecraft, it's not debasing classic American writing:.....".

and why even consider PKD or Lovecraft in the same breath as "debase" (to 'debase' literary style by vulgar expressions-Webster's Unabridged...)? PKD is one of the purest writers i've read- unmistakable, untainted, and unique.

FCBertrandJr said...

And how does this particular article compare with two other recent one:
"The Virtual Realist," by Gene Seymour in The Nation, and "Philip K. Dick: A pulp sci-fi writer finally wins respect," by Charles McGrath in International Herald Tribune??

Why is it that most American writers become far more notable AFTER they die, than while they are alive??

Scott Radtke said...

It's ironic that when the author describes Dick's style as "a copy of a copy of a copy," he could be just as easily - more easily? - describing the article in question. It seems obvious to me that the only knowledge the columnist has of Dick's work was gleaned from other hacks writing about Dick.

FCBertrandJr said...

Having had a chance now to try and digest Malcolm Jones's article in Newsweek, I would note that his metaphor of "all the other Mount Rushmore figures in American literature," is far fetched.

Knowing of PKD's penchant for kipple and gubble, it's far more likely that such figures of American lit would be on floating billboard signs

And his claim that PKD "never received much serious attention during his life," is inaccurate. He was popular and taken seriously in France and England while alive. And the first scholarly essays and academic theses were in French.