Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Dick problem

There's an interesting review of Heinlein's Stranger in Strange Land on Amazon, it's starts off with something like: not a bad book even if it is badly written. Which, you know, struck me as kinda odd, because how do you make such a statement so unselfconsciously, without any citation or providing any explanation, that is: it's badly written because...

I think it likely the person who wrote that review, was acquiescing to received opinion on Heinlein's merit as a writer, which in case you're not aware can be quite disparaging. Now this is where I have a problem, Heinlein's a pretty decent writer, bordering on brilliant when he's not in pulp mode and although it's been a very long time since I read Stranger in a Strange Land, that particular work is the seminal cross-over from science fiction into mainstream literature. So where does this quite widely held opinion that he's crap come from? Well my answer to that conundrum would be that it's a question of reputation, he's reputed to be a bad author by some quite influential opinion, there's a particular culprit I have in mind as the chief progenitor of that notion. This person would be a pretty decent writer himself, with a large following amongst science fiction readers but he never had the mainstream impact that Heinlein managed to attain. He never wrote the cult work and he didn't achieve Heinlein's broader influence, that incidentally, is not constrained to Stranger... but can be attributed to his work on projects like the film Destination Moon.

So a motive emerges, one that is not particularly edifying, that of professional jealously, which is why I've not identified the author in question. The usual response to that notion is one of incredulity, authors like the person in question are not that petty, they're nobler with lofty ideals. Oh yeah really, well history is not on your side with that argument because the examples of such motivation are numerous; the one I'll cite here is Giovanni Baglione's critique of Caravaggio and the disinformation following from it that still persists today.

So the Dick problem, how is that relevant? Well it refers to Philip K. Dick. Dick has, what I would call, an ascendant reputation. Plaudits abound in relation to Dick and an his works, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Man in the High Castle. The question I ask in this regard is, have you ever tried to read one of those books? If you did, did you think they were well written? Did the pages and pages of bald exposition seem well crafted, what about that omni-cognitive third person narrative, with its flawless insight, did that dazzle you? I'm guessing that you probably haven't read them or at least, like me, you didn't finish them. In truth, Dick is not a particularly engaging author or skilled at rendering narrative. Prose-wise, he's like a lot of folk from his background, centred on stream of consciousness, a consciousness that seems largely spiked by the use of pharmaceuticals. In that regard, he's playing catchup with James Joyce.

Now that doesn't mean Dick is a bad author, it just means he's difficult to read but the question arises, would that guy on Amazon describe a book by Dick as badly written?  I'm thinking no he wouldn't, he either couldn't bring himself to highlight the terrible narrative structure, the terrible prose, the awful plodding exposition, or he wouldn't have the critical faculty to make those observations. So what makes a book either well or badly written? Is it the actual words on the page, or the reputation of author? That's not such a facetious question as it might seem because perception is formed by opinion much more than it is by reality in certain circumstances. Personally, it's a question I can't resolve easily, because all creative works reside within their cultural context. It's their relevance to that culture, the recognition of them that derives from that context, that makes a creative work notable.


  1. I'm desperately trying to think of a 'dick' joke, but can't. Good or bad writing? I suppose, to many people, that's a subjective call. Does it engage the reader, does it make sense, does it observe the rules of grammar, etc. I think the The Wind In The Willows and Moonfleet are well-written books, but someone who tried to read them but failed to be engaged by them might consider them cr*p. Horses for courses perhaps. However, even books judged by an OBJECTIVE standard (rules of English) to be well-written, might be pretty dry reads.

    1. There are few of well worn criticisms that crop up regularly when people discuss fiction, one 'em is, badly written or bad writing and another is poor characterisation. The problem is, they're almost never well thought through. It's like it's enough to drop such terms into a critique and we're supposed to infer the reasons behind them. It reminds me of incident when a colleague offered his opinion on a brief verse I'd contrived for my own amusement, 'It doesn't even scan he said'. 'Oh really Terry' his name was Terry by the way, 'what does that mean then, when a verse doesn't doesn't scan?' I asked. And you know what, he didn't know, he had no concept of of what scansion meant, he was just pulling something out of his head, that he picked up through eavesdrop to make himself sound good.

      Now that's not to say he wasn't right in his way, the verse was a bit of a doggerel although it did scan perfectly. The thing is, he didn't like the verse and chose to beknight his opinion with something he thought would add weight to his criticism. And you know what, I think that's what most people who invoke phrases like bad writing or poor characterisation without any context, are doing. There's no such thing as poor characterisation, characters are realised through relationships and how those relationships are illustrated determines the depth of characterisation. If a character gets emotional because his bother dies and the brother has only just been mentioned by name twice, then there's no empathy with the character and his distress seems incongruous to readers. There shouldn't be a need to lump such a flaw under a generic label, it can be addressed explicitly.

      We all have our own tastes I suppose, for me if I were to cite exemplars of narrative, I would say: Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy and She by H Rider Haggard. They're separated in tone by some distance but are connected by forceful narrative technique. Hardy being the most skilled with descriptive prose and Haggard excelling with his drama and pace.

  2. Anthony Hope's The Prisoner Of Zenda and its sequel Rupert Of Hentzau are great reads. So are Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.

    1. You know, I'e got at least one Conan Doyle paperback somewhere, from when I used to be able to pick up old paperbacks on the market.