Ask a Book Question: The 44th in a Series (The mainstream novels of Philip K. Dick)

March 15, 2006 | 10 books mentioned 3 2 min read

Don writes in with this question:

Philip K. Dick wrote seven mainstream novels. I think they are pretty terrific, but except for sci-fi fans, no one pays much attention to them. Can you or your readers explain why these novels have received so little recognition among readers of “literary fiction”?

Long before Dick became a science fiction icon, before he began writing the sci-fi novels he’s most famous for, Dick aspired to write “serious,” mainstream fiction. He spent much of the early part of his career, in the 1950s, writing these novels and was devastated by the rejections he received. In his biography of Dick, Divine Invasions, Lawrence Sutin writes of Dick’s early career, “from 1951 through 1958, [he wrote] eighty-odd stories and thirteen novels-six SF, seven mainstream. The six SF novels were all promptly published, but the seven mainstream novels languished. It was an anguish to him. And out of that anguish, his best work would come.”

From what I can tell, in total Dick actually wrote at least eight and as many as ten or more (though some people classify different books differently) mainstream novels, some of which are still unpublished or were destroyed by Dick. Here’s a list of the eight I found: Confessions Of A Crap Artist, Gather Yourselves Together, Humpty Dumpty In Oakland, In Milton Lumky Territory, Mary And The Giant, Puttering About In A Small Land, The Broken Bubble, and The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike. Most of these were eventually published after his death, and many are out of print. Certainly, none of them even approach the popularity of most of his sci-fi novels.

The obvious answer as to why Dick’s mainstream novels are underappreciated is that he was long ago pigeonholed as a sci-fi writer, and the blockbuster movies based on his books have only exacerbated this phenomenon. It’s not news to anyone who pays attention to books that “genre” fiction – be it sci-fi, mystery or romance – is “ghettoized” in bookstores and in book review sections and that crossover success is rare. But, at the same time, as any real book-lover knows – readers who ignore the best of what genre fiction has to offer are doing themselves a great disservice.

With regards to Dick, specifically, though, I’d like to return to the quote above. Sutin writes that Dick’s failures pushed him to write his best work – his famous sci-fi novels. Now I’ve never read Dick’s mainstream fiction, but I’d wager that despite the quality of that work, Dick’s well-known, award-winning science fiction represents the pinnacle of his body of work. Many of history’s greatest writers have impressive bodies of work, but they become known for what is considered their best work and – often unfairly – the lesser work is underappreciated. Herman Melville wrote a lot of great stuff, but Moby Dick gets all the attention. This phenomenon is likely doubly true for Dick because his underappreciated work is in a different genre from his best and best-known work, so casual fans don’t even know that these mainstrem novels exist. I didn’t.

Thanks for the question, Don! I’m no expert on sci fi, so, readers, please share your thoughts in the comments.

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created The Millions and is its publisher. He and his family live in New Jersey.

3 comments:

  1. Hey Max,
    Thanks for blogging about Philip K. Dick, definitely one of my favorite authors. I have read many Dick novels and would throw in another that should be / is classified as a mainstream novel, 'The Transmigration of Timothy Archer'. It is part of the 'VALIS' trilogy that Dick wrote at the end of his life. It is a heartbreaking story of a Episcopalian bishop who, in dealing with his son's and girlfriend's suicides, loses his faith and goes on a quest to find the true identity of Jesus Christ. No Sci-Fi involved, but certainly one of Dick's most accomplished works.

    Also, have you heard about the internet novel that Walter Kirn is writing on Slate's website?

  2. I have only read one Phillip K. Dick novel, The Man in the High Castle…and it was for a literary theory course in college!
    That seems pretty fancy schmancy to me.

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