16 August 2004

A Charlatan Among the Visionaries

Michel Basilieres, doesn't like the work of Philip K. Dick. That's fine; Dick is definitely not a writer to everyone's taste. But Basilieres doesn't want anybody to like Philip K. Dick, and he's particularly annoyed that Dick's books are popular both with general readers and certain literary and cultural theorists skulking through the halls of academe. Even that opinion wouldn't be too bothersome if it were supported with real argument, but all Basilieres can do is bluster.

Let's indulge, then, in some exegesis:
It's hard to escape the growing cult surrounding Philip K. Dick; articles about the author are appearing everywhere these days. This probably would never have happened if Hollywood hadn't discovered Dick's literary canon. Three major films based on his books have already been made and another is in the works. Of course, as it always does, Hollywood picks what it can use from his work and discards everything else. Thus even the best of the films made from his work, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, is a mere adventure movie from which the typical voice of Philip K. Dick is absent. And this is a good thing because, let's face it, Dick was a terrible writer.
To simplify, the points being made are:
  • There is a growing PKD cult.

  • It is a cult because there are a lot of articles about PKD "everywhere".

  • This probably happened because Hollywood has made movies based on PKD's work.

  • Hollywood uses the books for its own purposes, that is, making adventure movies.

  • PKD was a terrible writer.
If we assume that the last point will be elaborated on later and that the penultimate point is irrelevant (being about Hollywood, not PKD), that leaves us with the first three points, which can be proved wrong in a number of ways.

First, if articles about PKD are "everywhere", the logical conclusion is his work is popular and/or of interest to a broad group of people who write and read such articles -- a conclusion that does not lead logically to there being a cult. This is not to say that there isn't a PKD cult, just that Basilieres has made a big leap without evidence.

The argument that Hollywood may be the cause of these articles' appearances (aided by the cult?) is a stretch, but perhaps plausible. It would probably be worthwhile to consider what has been written about PKD and see if it is Hollywood's fault. For instance, we might contact Kim Stanley Robinson and ask him if his doctoral thesis (finished in 1982, I think) on PKD's novels was inspired by Blade Runner, which was also a product of 1982.

The rest of the article is mostly about that last clause of the last sentence: Dick was a terrible writer.

At this point, a good essayist would provide some definition and evidence. "Terrible" has to be elaborated on, evidence needs to be presented to back up the claim, and readers need to know what criteria are used to reach such a judgment.

Here's the first piece of the evidence offered:
Dick wrote many science fiction novels--too many, and far too fast.
Thus, writing too much is bad. Good writers only write slowly, and they only write a few books. Hence, writers who have written a lot of books of mixed quality are terrible writers. Good writers don't write bad books. People who write bad books are bad writers. Unless they write their bad books slowly, in which case they might be good writers. Who wrote bad books. Slowly.
That he was only one of dozens of American writers doing this--and the situation doesn't seem to have changed--is the reason science fiction was and still is so derided. The genre is obviously low-grade escapism written for simpleminded adults or, at best, clever kids. Never mind any claims its writers may make for legitimacy, no matter on what grounds or with what evidence. Simply look at the reams of crap flowing through the bookstores like so many Big Macs--Billions Served!--and the truth becomes obvious. Or just look at the book covers.
These are the sentences that made me write this post. Because they are so ignorant, so bilious, so thoughtless, so repugnant that I can't let them go without at least laughing and farting at them as any sentient creature would.

Let's simplify the arguments in that paragraph to their core: Science fiction writers write too much, too quickly because they are trying to make money, and doing so means that SF is low-grade escapist reams of crap for mentally handicapped people. This is obviously true because of the covers the books are packaged with.

Obviously.

The next paragraph hedges a bit. Basilieres says that some "intelligent writers" have, indeed, managed to sneak into the "blanket of garbage" that is SF. (I don't actually disagree with this. Nor do I categorically disagree that much, or even most, SF is garbage, at least under certain definitions of garbage. It's just that Basilieres is not arguing the point very well.) The interesting thing about the hedging comment is that Basilieres lays out his primary criterion for "good" writing: that to be good it must "make sense".
But Philip K. Dick rarely made sense. His paranoid delusions about his own life transposed easily into his baroque space operas. He's becoming a hero in hindsight only because his work coincidentally seems to presage the creepiest developments of our contemporary culture. On the evidence of what's on his pages, people are beginning to think he knew what he was talking about.
Boiled down: Philip K. Dick was paranoid and had delusions; he wrote his books from these paranoid delusions, and therefore the books don't make sense -- though because the books seem applicable to some current cultural trends they give the illusion of making sense.

There are a few problems here. The first is that Dick's nuttiness as a human being is irrelevant. Strindberg was a fruitcake, and though it made him difficult to live with, his writing is a lot more interesting than it would have been had he been sane. Even that argument, though, is dangerous, because the life of the author may be interesting for biographical reasons, but the biography of the author does not determine the value of what the writer wrote, unless you think all good writers also have to be sane and rational human beings. I happen to value writings, which are less ephemeral than the lives of the writers. Otherwise, I would have to stop enjoying the work of quite a few writers because I thought they had crazy lives.

But maybe Dick's books really don't make sense, and maybe sense is the be-all and end-all of writing. Okay. But we need some evidence for this argument. What do we get?
[H]is work coincidentally seems to presage the creepiest developments of our contemporary culture. On the evidence of what's on his pages, people are beginning to think he knew what he was talking about.
The writings would have had to make some sort of sense if they are able to presage anything about our culture -- even if it is making sense by not making sense, because contemporary American middleclass culture doesn't make sense.

No. According to Basilieres, they presage but don't make sense.

Worse than that, lots of people "are beginning to think he knew what he was talking about." They are wrong. Because PKD doesn't make sense, either in his life or his writings. Hence, there is a cult. It has brainwashed people into thinking PKD made sense. But Michel Basilieres is not a member of the cult, he knows the Truth, he has seen The Light, and he is willing and able to volunteer for all deprogramming sessions offered by the United Nations and the Pope.

Then Basilieres goes on to discuss Emmanuel Carrere's book I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick (a book I have not read but am really going to have to, because reviewers seem to either love it or hate it, and such books are often interesting, even if I end up siding with the haters). Here Basilieres seems to have found a cult member (another one is Jonathan Lethem, mentioned briefly), one who has tried to represent the mind of PKD from his writings. Basilieres rattles on about what a screwed up mind is represented, and then uses Carrere's representation of that mind to criticize PKD's writings:
Dick may have been emotionally troubled, but his work is not that of a visionary genius out of step with the blinkered society around him. It is the product of chemical psychosis.
Because chemical psychosis does not make you out of step with a blinkered society, and it certainly doesn't make you a visionary genius. In fact, even if your work "presages the creepiest developments of our contemporary culture", because you used amphetimines (to write too much, too quickly) that work is not visionary. And it doesn't make sense.

Basilieres switches topics now to the Surrealists and automatic writing. (A moment of quibbling: The Surrealists did not call all of their work "automatic writing", only the writing that was written in a particular way, and many of them disagreed about what that way was. For this discussion it would also be worth noting that Poe, the Decadents, and Dada came before surrealism. But never mind.) Basilieres only brought up the subject so he could complain again that Dick wrote too much, too quickly, and, worst of all, for money:
Like Dick, they produced some remarkable results. But they never tried to make a living at it, so they were able to eschew commercial considerations such as plot and continuity. Dick, by contrast, was forced to bend his neurotic fantasies to the formulas of pulp fiction.
So Dick did produce "some remarkable results". (But he was a terrible writer.) Dick's problem was that he had to think about plot and continuity, because he was trying to make a living. Which good writers don't do. Because they make sense. Which requires plot and continuity. Except when you don't care about commercial success.

Next, Basilieres praises Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Why? Because instead of using "pulp conventions or intuition", Dick consulted the I Ching. This allowed him to get beyond "his own unbalanced view of life" and -- best of all! -- it is "remarkably like a mainstream novel". Why? Because it is "realistic" and "believable". It makes sense. Because it was based on the I Ching.

But Hollywood won't like it, Basilieres says, because there is "little room for action in the book". Good writers, after all, don't appeal to Hollywood. Or have action in their books. Good writers make sense and are boring. (Lest you be taken in by this idiocy, The Man in the High Castle is an entertaining and thought-provoking novel, and, indeed, one of Dick's best. But a good conclusion does not a good argument make. And the implied conclusions about all science fiction are ridiculous.)

After this brief interlude of praise-with-bite, Basilieres finally makes some specific charges against the actual writing. Namely, that the prose "was at best competent and never conscious of itself as a tool for creating art" and frequently worse than that. Also, Dick had no empathy for female characters, and so women in his books are "wooden props", evil wives, "emasculating harridan[s]" who get killed or punched instead of divorced. And--

But that's it. His prose was bad and his female characters were victims, villains, and props. (Oh, yes, and he doesn't make sense. Can't forget that.)

If you judge Dick by much of his work, those charges are entirely true. Lots and lots of terrible prose. Lots of embarrassingly bad (in every sense) females. And males, for that matter, because most of Dick's characters were not what one might want to encourage their children to grow up to be.

But we should judge writers by their best works, and there are times, particularly in his later novels, when Dick rises above these limitations. However, Basilieres has hit upon a couple of generally valid criticisms. He doesn't, though, end there. Alas.

Realizing that he needs some backup, Basilieres brings Stanislaw Lem in (after making a few more lame hedging statements, saying Dick's books can be fun to read but they weren't anything new and now they're really old), though it's really just name-dropping, a chance for him to let us know he's read Lem's essay "Philip K. Dick: Visionary Among the Charlatans" (in Microworlds). If you glance at that essay, and at Lem's "Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case -- with Exceptions" you'll find some of Basilieres's arguments being made with much more care and force. In fact, I'm not sure Basilieres has ever read any science fiction ... he might only have read Lem.

Finally, he reminds us (did we know?) that he's actually reviewing Carrere's "brilliant book", and his final verdict is that Dick would either have been "terrified by it, or convinced it was after all his own work, the book he's always wanted to write." (Why? Who knows. Basilieres meant to tell us, but got so wrapped up in bashing Dick as a psychopath, a misogynist, and a writer of bad prose that he forgot to tell us exactly why a representation of a writer's mind by an imaginative biographer is better than the writer's own work. I assume because it has good prose, balanced portraits of women, and makes sense. Unlike the mind it is supposedly representing.)

I suppose it's ridiculous to go on at length about an essay that is so obviously incoherent and irrational. Really, we should just label Basilieres's piece as humor and have a good laugh. He's probably a good guy, after all, and even if he only likes fiction that isn't written for money, fiction that is written slowly, fiction that makes sense ... well, there are worse crimes.

I've written all this because I want better criticism of science fiction to exist. Criticism that isn't based on broad generalizations and unsupported proclamations. There are valid points to be made about how and why we read what we do, how we value certain works rather than others. Such criticism is useful because it helps readers look at what they read differently. It's a selfish idea, really, because I want new ways to look at what I read, new ways to value different types of writing, new ways to communicate my passion for such writing. And I don't mind re-evaluating writers whose works, for one reason or another, I do appreciate, such as Philip K. Dick, even if the re-evaluation is harsh. Stanislaw Lem's essay is, indeed, a model. I disagree with a lot of it, and I think Lem oversimplified at times and also suffered from a lack of access to many texts, but nonetheless the effect of all his essays is to get me thinking more broadly about what science fiction is, what it does, and what, more importantly, it could do. His essays use certain examples of writing to speculate on the possibilities of literature; they expand our understanding of what we read by carving new shapes in the matter of our thoughts.

Basilieres's essay is the opposite; it is a constriction, a puritanical diatribe, a dogmatic belch.

And it doesn't make sense.

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