Who gets to choose what’s worthy of being considered serious art when it comes to writing? And why is literature so much worse at recognising really great works that just happen to fall into a genre category?
Film doesn’t have this problem; there are tons of sci-fi films that are widely recognised as works of art, real slices of celluloid genius. It doesn’t seem to work the same for books; you don’t get a sci-fi author winning, or even nominated for, the Booker, at least not often. You might get a book from a more mainstream literary author, like Margaret Atwood or Kazuo Ishiguro, with a novel in the running that has some elements of science fiction in there, but they’re established authors, already recognised for their talents, so you don’t have to worry about them being cheesy hacks. Phew, managed not to look like an idiot there.
Of course, it doesn’t work the other way round. Established science fiction authors with a more mainstream piece of literary fiction are often still stuck in the pen of sci-fi, whether their novel has anything to do with space or time travel or anything vaguely science-y at all.
Philip K Dick is best known for his science fiction ideas; his books inspired films including Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall and A Scanner Darkly. His non sci-fi works, like Confessions of a Crap Artist and VALIS, never really made it out of the genre valley. They’re there, at the bottom, not really sci-fi, but never really considered worthy of attention by the literary mainstream.
In general, only the more dedicated fans of Dick’s writing are likely to bother taking the time to read them. Actually, that’s probably for the best because they’re probably weirder than his more straight up science fiction works (not that anything Dick wrote can be categorised as straight up, really). I’m reading VALIS at the moment and it’s brilliant but I really can’t get my head around the fact that it ever got published, it’s just too weird.
His writing isn’t perfect; you wouldn’t call his prose polished, but his ideas are awe-inspiring. I can’t think of any other writer that has had as many great ideas that feel like they flip your brain inside out and still make sense. Dick’s mind worked in really bloody mysterious ways. It’s like he was tapped into some vein of reality that doesn’t line up with the rest of what we know, or think we know, about life, but nevertheless makes a kind of intrinsic, messed up sense.
It says a lot for the culture of sci-fi that VALIS is number 43 in the SF Masterworks series. SF Masterworks are a collection of the best science fiction novels ever writer, chosen by editors and authors. VALIS isn’t really sci-fi in the classic sense; it’s got Gods and philosophy and psychiatric wards, but really it’s a description of Dick’s theological ideas and mental illness. The main character, Horselover Fat (Philip means fond of horses in Greek, while Dick is the German word for Fat), is really Dick himself, and he admits that he’s writing in third person as a way of getting some perspective on his experiences. If it had been written by Jose Saramago or even Martin Amis, it would have been up there on all the awards shortlists.
But Dick is a science fiction author, so like Fat in the novel, he’s dismissed as a crank. A weirdo nutcase. Perhaps he was crazy (yeah, he was totally crazy) but also perhaps he was right, at least in part. His idea of the world, of God, of where we all come from and the true nature of reality, is no more strange than the ideas in the Bible or any other holy book. In fact, he was using the Bible and other philosophical and religious texts to come up with his own idea of truth in the universe, pretty much what religious leaders and scholars have been doing since Moses started hearing bushes chatting him up.
Despite the unscientific content of some of his novels, sci-fi readers, authors and editors have embraced all his weirdo crank stuff. The stranger, more experimental authors, who haven’t built up a mainstream career already, often get side lined as just genre, mere cult authors unworthy of serious consideration. Consequently their ideas are closed off to a whole group of readers who don’t get to find out about them. Obviously, you might not want to read the Dick’s ideas about life, the universe and everything, but if you like strange, esoteric stuff, or even if you’ve enjoyed any of the movies based (usually quite loosely) on his books, you should give it a go. It’s undoubtedly an experience and I think one more than worth having.
Of course, I’m just as guilty of ignoring genres I’m not interested in. So maybe I’m missing out on amazing crime or fantasy fiction. If you have any suggestions of awesome genius stuff from these genres, then let me know. Unless your recommendation is Game of Thrones because nah.
If you liked this, check out my blog on Alasdair Gray’s literary genius.