Saturday, September 22, 2007

A Scanner Darkly, by Philip K. Dick

I must admit, the skepticism with which so many self-important literateurs view Dick gripped me too. I made a tentative effort to correct or educate this skepticism by checking out Ubik, supposedly his masterpiece, but chucked it quickly back into the library.

Looking for a book-on-tape to pass the time as I drove hither and thither on a number of journeys from the East Coast to Indiana, I decided that I could knock off some obscure obligation to "read" at least one book by Dick by consuming him while stuck in meaningless transit.

I found the first few discs—what probably amounts to half or 2/5 of the book—slow and actually made it through a number of long trips without even touching them; I would rather just listen to the CDs I had also brought along. But I decided to power through the rest of the book on my way to work each morning, a drive which is about as long in duration as one disc (a little more than an hour). Perhaps this even pacing allowed me to give more attention and more interest to the book, or perhaps it just got a lot better, but I became engrossed in the book, and tremendously so by the last third, especially the author's note following the end of the narrative. I can now see what has brought so many fans to his works, and I am eager to read more. I am interested to see if (my skepticism persists somewhat) the experience will be different when I read one of his books in the traditional manner; a good narrator (Paul Giamatti in this case) can obviously make bad or sloppy patches of fiction (which many complain that Dick is full of) seem smoother and less abruptly grating.

At any rate, it is widely known and widely said that the place of science fiction, and of Dick more particularly, in the broader narrative of American fiction is clearly at a crucial juncture at the moment, marked publicly, it must be confessed, by the Library of America's recent and much remarked-upon inclusion of Dick in its canon. More gradually, it is the inevitable result, and perhaps the first fruits, of a generational change first among the taste-making American novelists (occurring in the late 9os and early 2000s) and now, slowly, among literary scholars. The Deconstructing Generation is retiring, slowly perhaps, but surely, and is being replaced by the Cultural Studiers.

Adam Gopnik, in what he calls a "gently disparaging comprehensive review," narrated this shift well in The New Yorker:
There’s nothing more exciting to an adolescent reader than an unknown genre writer who speaks to your condition and has something great about him. The Ace paperback cover promises mere thrills, and the writing provides real meaning. The combination of evident value and apparent secrecy makes Elmore Leonard fans feel more for their hero than Borges lovers are allowed to feel for theirs. When they tell you it’s going to be good, what more can you hope for it to be?

Eventually, enough of these secret fans grow up and get together, and the writer is designated a Genius, acquiring all the encumbrances of genius: fans, notes, annotated editions, and gently disparaging comprehensive reviews. Since genre writing can support only one genius at a time—and no genre writer ever becomes just a good writer; it’s all prophet or all hack—the guy is usually resented by his peers and their partisans even as the establishment hails him. No one hates the rise of Elmore Leonard so much as a lover of Ross Macdonald.

Of course, this type of generational shift seems only to function in the case of genre writers; I can't foresee the Cultural Studiers proselytizing for Salinger in the same fashion, despite his being another author whom adolescents of the 60s and 70s (and 80s?) turned to in search of an articulator for their frustrations. For one thing, they don't have to—he's already in the canon, though not, I think it should be pointed out, the curriculum (at least not commonly).

That is a diference I am very interested in—writers who seem canonical or at least canonized and yet whose absence from critical study, or at least from important critical study, is not contested in the slightest.

I should say that this interest comes from—or led to, I'm not sure which—my thesis on Saul Bellow, a writer who is quite generally accepted as one of the best of the past half century, where best means most critically successful, most dominant on the literary scene, most influential (the host of novelists endorsing him is terribly impressive). Yet Bellow has not attracted the critical attention and is taught far less than any number of writers who never made the kind of contemporary impact Bellow did, nor reached the kind of critical acclaim he attained. Few courses covering the relevant period of American literature teach novels like Herzog, but all teach genre authors in abundance.

I find the politics of curricula and canons tiresome, and it is not my intent to imply that for every or William Gibson assigned, a Bellow should be. I don't disagree that a novel like Neuromancer should be assigned as often as it is, if not more. I see quite clearly that these novels meet the requirement that any important book should create a genre or shatter an old one, and that for this reason they are not only important but critical when teaching and writing about the late twentieth century and its literature. And to be frank, the novels of Philip K. Dick or William Gibson have done more in their diffusion to alter our cultural landscape than all of Bellow's or Roth's or Updike's novels put together.

But these types of novels do not, I think, require the volume of critical attention they garner. It seems that, and it could just be my impression, the same handful of buzzy, trendy authors are written on, often using the same critical and ideological techniques, while many authors who are also, I feel, critical for studying any given time period, languish in inattention, or scant and provincial attention.

It is often assumed in debates over these things that questioning the narrowness of focus of a field's inquiry is the same as rejecting its choice of focus. Most see curricular choices to be a zero sum game, and on the micro-level it is. If I am a professor putting together a syllabus, I only have so many pages I can assign reasonably. Neuromancer is worth its spot, (though probably not a tome like House of Leaves, at least not for undergrads) for a survey course on the contemporary novel. There may be no room for any of Roth's output in the 80s or 90s, for instance, despite their acclaim. (Of course, acclaim is a rather poor criterion for academic attention, but I mean something more by the term than the enthusiasm of reviewers and prize committees. I mean a certain impact on the literary and cultural scene, if that's not too general.)

But on a macro-level, someone, and someone of note, should be giving serious attention to writers like Bellow, like Doctorow, like Cheever, like Stegner, like Fowles, like Updike, like William Kennedy, like Mailer, like, let us say it and be done with it, mainstream, literary-establishment, living-dead or just dead white men. They are a part—and a significant part—of the literary history of the late 20th century, and you can't have a full picture of that history without them.

So while I'm glad that Philip K. Dick has now been properly canonized in the Library of America and what-not, I wish some of his fanboys and girls would start reading Bellow.

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