Buried at the tail end of Mark Sarvas's interview with Jonathan Lethem comes news of one project on the novelist's plate: "I'm helping preside over the utter and irreversible canonization of one of my (formerly outsider) heroes, Philip K. Dick: I'm writing endnotes for The Library of America, which is doing a volume of four of his novels from the sixties, which I also helped select."I suppose that if Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and H. P. Lovecraft are great writers, then Dick is too. But in my view, this event is most important as further evidence of how poor the mainstream American novel was during the previous century. Solid but unspectactular and fairly uninsightful genre authors (though this last limitation does not apply to Dick) are touted as among the best the nation had to offer, and this is true because the mainstream novelists were so often confused, self-important, and wrongheaded.
A good many of Philip K. Dick's books and stories are well worth reading, but he really worked largely on frankly pulp material. His great contribution was to convey interesting, provocative, and important ideas in a pulp context, but that is like making a really fast production automobile. It's fast, but it can't run with the custom jobbies.
Dick stands out as an author because the "custom cars" of his time were so shabby.
PKD's prose was usually serviceable at best, although better than, say, Theodore Drieser's glop. But whereas Dreiser's characterizations could be immensely powerful and the conflicts highly real and dramatic, Dick's characters are usually unable to sustain much interest, and the stories depend almost entirely on their ideas and interesting plot angles. Some of those concepts and ideas are so good that his writings have gained a strong foothold in the culture through film adaptations. For that reason, he's certainly one of the more important American writers of the second half of the twentieth century.
Philip K. Dick was indeed a great pulp writer, if there can be such a thing, and a very good writer within his limits. I'll call him a very good writer overall when at his best. And his elevation to Library of America status points out once again that genre literature, despite its limitations, was where it was at in American literature during the past century.
From Karnick on Culture.