Books: Philip K. Dick Joins the Club

If there is anyone who would not understand Philip K. Dick's inclusion in the Library of America—those uniform editions of what the Library calls the "best and most significant" American literature—it would be Dick himself. It isn't that he didn't think he deserved to be taken seriously. The honor simply would not fit with the way he saw the world: in his novels, the future is always a sorrier version of the present, a copy of a copy of a copy. But there he stands, alongside Faulkner, Melville, Wharton, Twain and all the other Mount Rushmore figures of American literature.

Dick, who died 25 years ago—the same year the Library of America was born—never received much serious attention during his life. He worked almost exclusively in the literary ghetto of science fiction. In Dick's depiction of the future, we do get the spaceships and the colonies on Mars, but we never shuck off being human, we never figure out what being human means—and those who search the hardest for meaning are often driven mad for their troubles. As a character thinks to himself in "The Man in the High Castle," "One seeks to contravene one's perceptions—why? So that one can wander utterly lost, without signposts or guide?"

His books are set in a future that was almost always an extension of the present. "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?", one of the four novels included in the Library of America volume, posits a world where robots are the underclass. The important thing, as far as Dick was concerned, was that there had to be an underclass—it was something human beings couldn't live without. "Androids" became "Blade Runner" when it went to Hollywood, and while "Blade Runner" is about as close as Hollywood has come to capturing Dick on film, it still misses the heart of the book: the idea of a world without animals—"electric sheep" alludes to the fact that people have robots for pets. Perhaps the most powerful thing about this book—and the movie only hints at this facet of the story—is the almost unbearable sadness of what Dick envisioned.

Judged by conventional critical yardsticks, Dick falls short of greatness. His plots creak. Reading his prose can feel like being assaulted with a blunt instrument. But the usual standards don't really work with him. Almost despite himself, it often seems, he created an atmosphere of paranoia, fear and psychological imprisonment that grips a reader like a waking nightmare. And greatness in art is always a subjective thing—if you're comparing Philip K. Dick to Henry James, someone is going to fall short. In American literature particularly, greatness has always popped up in the oddest places—in sermons, journalism, political oratory, pulp fiction, even food writing (the Library has also just published an anthology of that), as often as in conventional novels, stories, poetry and plays. As Max Rudin, the Library of America's publisher, puts it, "The energy of American writing has always been a democratic energy that's bubbled up from the bottom as much as it has trickled down from the top."

Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, both included in the Library's roster, made literature out of the detective story. Murray Kempton wrote to a high literary standard when covering the civil-rights movement, as did Michael Herr in Vietnam: they were reporters, essayists and historians all at once. "There's much more of a democratic merging of genres in American writing than in other places," Rudin argues. So when the Library makes room for Dick, or for H. P. Lovecraft, it's not debasing classic American writing: it's acknowledging reality.

And that reality is an ever-shifting thing. "The question has always been, has the dust settled on the literary reputation sufficiently to warrant inclusion in the Library?" Rudin says, even when that reputation belongs to a living, working writer such as Philip Roth, who Rudin says is already sufficiently "canonical" to be included in the Library. But, as the Library has discovered over the course of its two-and-a-half decades, the dust never really settles on a reputation. So, while no one has complained about early Roth's being included in the Library, Rudin says he's always getting an earful about long-dead writers whose reputations may have slipped over time (watch your back, John Steinbeck) or writers who are simply no longer widely loved. "The toughest thing we have to do," he says, "is find an audience for the truly canonical authors like Irving or Howells."

From almost any perspective, it makes sense to canonize Dick's writing. He has influenced artists ranging from the novelist Jonathan Lethem—who's repaid his debt by editing the Library of America edition—to the Wachowski brothers, whose "Matrix" movies are unimaginable without Dick's vision to inspire them. His prose was a little flaky and his genre a bit dodgy, but, as a character in "The Man in the High Castle" says, "He told us about our own world ... This, what's around us now."