On Adam Gopnik’s Ridiculous Philip K. Dick Essay

There’s nothing more exciting to a literary enthusiast than a once overlooked and perhaps mainstream writer like Philip K. Dick being seemingly considered by The New Yorker. But Adam Gopnik, a reductionist blowhard who I suspect is not much fun at a cocktail party, prefers reactions to Philip K. Dick over the text itself, revealing his true Hooked on Speculative Fiction colors in failing to apply complexity to a phenomenon that clearly deserves it. His take is that of a new parent, perhaps of a psychotic temperament, seriously considering crib death as his first option — as antipodean from understanding the how and the why as a critic of any sort can get. This is a desperate assignment carried out by a man who would declare all manner of generalizations about what he thinks Dick’s work and science fiction is about, but who is not so much interested in recalibrating his own prejudices as he is in flaunting his own apparently superior tastes. Humility and cross-genre flexibility would seem two qualities that come to Gopnik with some difficulty.

pkd.jpgIt’s a pity that even someone as purportedly half-hearted as Luc Sante wasn’t assigned the piece, for surely Sante would have spearheaded his assessment, as he did with his recent Kerouac piece, towards the text first. This is what any decent critic should do. Gopnik does quote text, but he is frequently at odds against the Dick boosters — unnamed, uncited — with his countless cries of J’accuse!

Rather than attempt a precise assessment for why PKD has influenced writers as diverse as Jonathan Lethem and Matt Ruff, and for why his work has been transformed into many movies, and for why the Library of America felt it necessary to honor this apparent genre hack by enclosing four of his books into a single volume, we get instead a clumsily contrarian assault upon literary enthusiasm and an assault upon literary influence. How dare the natural course of human passion extend to such apparent drivel as The Man in the High Castle rather than The King in the Window! How dare this same apparently unstoppable current draw its attention to the grimy drugged out underworld rather than elevated expatriate observing from Paris!

Let’s be clear. Gopnik did not have it easy. To attempt a Dick assessment is to wrestle with a quite insane individual who composed a 35 million word diary, who believed that various agents were out to get him, and who likewise felt compelled to write by any means necessary. I will agree that attaching a label like “Genius” to Dick or to proclaim that Dick could do no wrong is to elevate some of his purpler prose to veritiginous heights. But it is with this kind of literary absolutism is where Gopnik has his greatest problems. For Dick, with his intense imagery, was undeniably special. Why can’t a writer be compared to both Italo Calvino and Robertson Davies? What causes a writer to get two seemingly antipodean comparisons? And who are those who are making these claims? (Gopnik, grappling the elusive “they” like an alcoholic clutching his brown bag, does not ever say.)

Gopnik does not seem to understand, for example, that the Hugo Award was quite a different accolade in 1963 than it was today. Both the Emmanuel Carrère and Lawrence Sutin biographies — in particular, the former — suggest this. Before science fiction became somewhat respectable, spurred in part by the increasing acceptability of geekdom in the 1990s, it was considered a field populated by kooks, shifty-eyed magpies, and other assorted lunatics. Gopnik’s considerable ignorance (and elitism) continues when he writes, “There were a million places to write sci-fi in those years, publishers eager to have it, and readers eager to argue about it.” Is Gopnik implying here that there was no significant difference between meticulously edited monthies such as Astounding, Galaxy, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, or slightly more experimental offerings like New Worlds, and the endless fanzines distributed at conventions? Is he truly not aware of the New Wave movement? Is he not aware that it was not until 1969 when Ballantine began to take science fiction seriously with the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series? Is he not cognizant of the battles that Donald A. Wollheim fought against distributors to keep Thomas Burnett Swann’s How Are the Mighty Fallen in circulation despite its gay-themed content? Or familiar with Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions volumes — anthologies that offered necessary kicks in the ass in response to the publishing industry’s puerile ideas about genre and ended up selling more than anybody had thought?

During Dick’s time, there were definitive limitations in place about what science fiction could and could not do. dick may not have been “unfairly neglected” by the science fiction community, who certainly saw the magic that shone through Dick’s prolfiic output. But he was, like many great writers who just happened to be writing science fiction stories, certainly “unfairly neglected” by the snobbish nitwits who looked down on genre in the way that Howard Hughes was terrified of bacteria. Adam Gopnik, happily no doubt, is certainly living up to this stuffy tradition.

Let us also consider Gopnik’s characterization of Dick:

He seems to have been a man of intellectual passion and compulsive appetite (he was married five times), the kind of guy who can’t drink one cup of coffee without drinking six, and then stays up all night to tell you what Schopenhauer really said and how it affects your understanding of Hitchcock and what that had to do with Christopher Marlowe.

As the two cited Dick biographies made perfectly clear, it was not a “compulsive appetite” that caused Dick to be married five times. Perhaps it’s too much of a common sense conclusion for Gopnik to ponder, but when a man believes he is the center of the universe, stays up at all hours to write (often on speed), and repeatedly goes to the police because he believes people are watching him, chances are that he’s going to have a few marital difficulties.

We also get grand generalizations from Gopnik such as “Dick tends to get treated as a romantic,” such Alfred E. Neuman-like insights as “he did see questions in vast cosmological terms,” and gross oversimplifications like “[t]he typical Dick novel is at once fantastically original in its ideas and dutifully realistic in charting their consequences.” Gopnik claims that Dick’s books “belong to a particular time,” but fails to discern how Dick dutifully filled his books with such prescient terminology as “broad-band.” And he condemns Dick for his prolificity. “[O]ne thing you have to have done in order to have done in order to write eleven novels in two years is not to have written any of them twice.” Cite examples much, Gopnik?

Gopnik does at least offer an interesting comparison between Dick and another Philip, but he lacks the perspicacity or the know-how to compare Roth’s middle period against Dick’s oeuvre, much less offer any textual examples showing where he sees these associations.

Overlook such concessions as “beautiful and hallucinatory” in relation to Ubik (after all, the Library of America must have some validity in republishing Dick), and one sees quite clearly that Gopnik comes not to praise Dick, but to bury him.

But Gopnik, who seems to think he’s being a contrarian here with this essay, is doing no such damage. The Dick legacy will live on and perhaps infuriate Gopnik further. The New Yorker readers bobbing their heads up and down over this malarkey probably weren’t going to sample Dick anyway. And in the end, Gopnik has given the New Yorker as predictable a take as they likely expected. It’s decidedly unsophisticated for a magazine that claims to be sophisticated.

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16 Comments

  1. Ah Ed, you see, an essay of the caliber you describe here would have taken a considerable amount of research and insight. It would have meant thinking before writing. The New York Times is not the publication to which one goes for such improbable heights. How silly of you to have thought so.

  2. You talk about referencing the text but your post is primarily concerned with personal attacks. When you call someone a “reductionist blowhard who I suspect is not much fun at a cocktail party” you come off like a child and undermine your own argument. It’s an argument that, if you tried harder, I think would have some merit. But instead of raising the level of discourse (to discuss the text) you lower the level of discourse (by hurling personal insults). I think that’s unfortunate.

  3. James: If you had bothered to read this post, you’ll see that I used many examples from Gopnik’s text to reveal his deficient argument. As for why I went ad hominem, well, let’s just say that Gopnik wanted to kick PKD in the balls on flimsy pretext and that one must sometimes fight dirtier. Chilidish? Perhaps. I am, after all, six years old.

  4. For some reason, I feel compelled to note that I am not the James who posted above.

  5. It doesn’t matter. The point is there is no place for personal attacks in serious discourse. The personal attacks will always over-shadow and take from whatever else you are trying to say.

  6. Absolutely, James the First. I also eat my entree with my salad fork. Your point being?

  7. I agree with you, Ed. It wasn’t so much what Gopnick was saying, as how he was saying it. And to belittle PKD’s prose shows me what a remedial intellect Gopnick has. Had PKD got to shuttle back and forth between two of the most expensive cities in the world (Paris & NYC), publishing his diary entries, a la Monsieur Gopnick, instead of writing for his life, perhaps he could’ve done some more lesiurely revisions, as per Gopnick request. Sometimes I forget that The New Yorker is written by the rich, for the rich. And to those who would say that there’s no need to bring class into the argument, well, you didn’t read Gopnick’s article closely enough, because the whole piece was dripping with class condescension from first word to last.

  8. Now, that’s and ad hom, CBO. Ressentiment much?

    Ed, you did a great job of articulating just what’s wrong with the Gop’s piece. I was so hopeful, though, when you said “Gopnik does at least offer an interesting comparison between Dick and another Philip.” I was like “Ochs? How could I have missed it?”

    Thank you for this. The article has elicited a lot of nonsense in the blogosphere, and it’s nice to see a reasoned argument about it.

  9. Josh: of course I’m resentful. I think that’s pretty obvious in my comment. I also think it’s pretty obvious in Gopnick’s piece that he is resentful of PKD. And I think it’s pretty obvious in your comment that you’re resentful of what I said. So my question to you is not whether it’s acceptable to be so resentful, but whether or not I should be resentful of how obvious you are.

    So that’s my impersonation of Joyce Carol Oates.

  10. CBO, I think it’s certainly legitimate to talk about class when discussing PKD, especially vis-a-vis The New Yorker.

    Josh, I think Ed has a reasoned argument to make but he’s choosing not to make it, or rather to obscure it. You can find some interesting stuff in Dale Peck’s writing too, but mostly Peck is just an attention whore and he let that get the better of him. I think that’s what’s happening here, is that Ed wants attention and he knows he’ll get it if he says something really mean that is actually not necessary for the argument he is making.

  11. James: I can think of no easier way of accruing attention for yourself than by using the word whore in your description of someone else. Ed’s argument seems to me to be pretty upfront, so if there is something he’s not saying, and this you’re sure of, then why don’t you tell us what he’s not willing to say. And if you don’t know what it is that he’s trying not to say, then how can you be sure that he’s not saying it?

  12. I just got done reading the Gopnick piece again. I wanted to make sure that I hadn’t misread his tone, which I didn’t. What is bothers me so much about Gopnick’s piece is what bothered me so much about Franzen’s piece on Gaddis, and it is this: In both pieces, fairly young, very sucessful writers go out of their way to dump on dead writers who were, at best, seen as marginal figures while they were alive. Dick could barely afford to live until the last few years of his life, and Gaddis had to work as a corporate speech writer for the better part of his working life. PKD and Gaddis both wrote about (amongst many things, mind you)dehumanization, how this particular period in late-stage capitalism turns even the best of men into wind-up toys. More people have access to Gopnick’s writing on a weekly basis (vis a vis The New Yorker) than anyone ever had to either PKD or Gaddis. To me, what this boils down to, is that Gopnick is a bully (as is Franzen), but the worst kind of bully, the type of bully who picks on those he knows cannot fight back. At least Dale Peck has the courage to attack those who occupy the station above, i.e., Whitehead, DFW, Pynchon. Gopnick is a coward. Not to mention that his name – Gopnick – sounds like a name PKD would have given one of his less desirable characters. Oh, that’s so immature of me. Making fun of someone’s name. Now I’m the bully. I’m done. I have nothing else to say on this topic. Thanks, Ed, for letting me rant.

  13. So I guess writers are only allowed to critique other writers that have bigger readerships than they do?

    And once a writer is dead, all critiques are off?

    Jesus, at least judge an argument on its own merits, not by who’s making it and who it’s about.

  14. I had never heard of Gopnik before, but his article is has a superficial, irritating to tone, although some points are fair enough. In fact, I only skimmed it. I can’t help thinking that it’s good for PKD anyway that wide circulation media run articles on him anyway. Helps to keep his profile up!

  15. Jonathan Lethem at the Cooper Union in NYC!
    Vivien – 9/6/2007 8:55:09 PM
    Jonathan Lethem: Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s
    Lecture and book signing
    Thursday, September 27, 6:30 pm
    The Great Hall
    7 East 7th Street at Third Avenue
    Free

    Jonathan Lethem: Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s

    Acclaimed writer Jonathan Lethem is the editor of a selection of novels written by science fiction writer Philip K. Dick from the 1960s. Dick left behind more than 160 short stories and novels when he died in 1982. Many of his tales have become successful films, such as Blade Runner and Minority Report. Lethem bundled four of Dick’s novels into one book to give a new generation the opportunity to discover Dick’s futuristic visions.

    Jonathan Lethem is the author of seven novels, including Gun, with Occasional Music; The Fortress of Solitude and You Don’t Love Me Yet. Motherless Brooklyn, his fifth, won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

  16. I’ve just read the Gopnik article in The New Yorker. Obviously, this Gropnik is a literary snob. Now we only have to go find who (and what style of writing) he prefers. Is it Ayn Rand? She always lurks in the wings these days. Going back through the essay generates this list: Elmore Leonard, Borges, Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler, Poe, Lethem, Doctorow, Ah! There he is: Pynchon, Vonnegut, Ellery Queen, Philip Roth. Well… The first thing we notice is that these are mostly NEW YORK writers! The article is in ‘The New Yorker’ magazine. No way Gropnik is going to credit any Left Coast writer with anything but inferiority to the denizens of the New York literary scene. So, here he is in glossy hack-work of the highest order flashing literary gang signs to California, putting them in their place. Unfortunately for Mr. Gopnik, him being in New York, he doesn’t realise that the locus of literary importance in America moved from New York City to Calfornia about the time THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE was published in 1962. All that remains in New York is the hulk of a dyng pubishing empire brought to ruin by its own bloated sense of self-importance and utterly boring writing.

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