I’ve been an avid reader of science fiction for a very long time. I honestly cannot say what brought me into the genre, but I have a feeling it was my introduction into Star Wars sometime in sixth or seventh grade. I’ve been hooked ever since.
Some time in college, I decided that I should read some of the more important books in the genre. To help me along, I decided to try and read as many of the books on the Basic Science Fiction Library list maintained by the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas. I’m still slowly making my way through the books, but I’ve had some trouble with one in particular.
Dhalgren is Samuel R. Delany’s most well-known book. He’s written others; I particularly enjoyed Nova, though it was a bit on the trippy side, as I recall. But Dhalgren is the one that gets talked about the most and I’m starting to think it’s because it is very polarizing. You either love it or you hate it.
At the point in my life that I first tried to read it, I hadn’t yet met a book that I didn’t like. And there was a ton of praise for Dhalgren. I mean, look at some of this stuff:
It is a work of sustained conceptual daring, executed by the most remarkable prose stylist to have emerged from the culture of American science fiction. -William Gibson, The Recombinant City: A Foreword to Dhalgren.
“The very best ever to come out of the science fiction field … A literary landmark.” -Theodore Sturgeon
That’s powerful stuff. At that point, I’d already read much of Gibson and I loved his work. And I’d at least heard of Theodore Sturgeon. So I started reading Dhalgren, which, if you haven’t seen it, is a fairly large book at about 817 pages. The basic plot is that this Midwestern town called Bellona has fallen off the map, and entered into some weird psychedelic realm, I guess. The main character enters the town, encounters gangs that hide inside of holograms and a whole bunch of other weirdness.
And, without realizing it, I got bored with it. It was an extremely confusing feeling. I’d never gotten bored reading a book. And this was supposed to be one of best science fiction books ever! I had to literally force myself to sit down, open it up and attempt to read it. Before I even realized it, Dhalgren was languishing on the shelf while I moved on to books that held my interest. I tried getting through it again a few times over the next few years, but always gave up after a little while.
Since then, I’ve had only one similar experience: the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake. This is another set of books that you would think would be great. Universally acclaimed (“A rich wine of fancy chilled by the intellect to just the right temperature … uniquely brilliant.” –Anthony Burgess; “[Peake’s books] are actual additions to life; they give, like certain rare dreams, sensations we never had before, and enlarge our conception of the range of possible experience.” –C.S. Lewis), the books focus on Titus Groan, heir to a sprawling castle and all the intrigue that comes along with it.
I started these books and had to pretty much force myself to read them. I actually did get through these, but I honestly couldn’t tell you why I trudged through them. I think it was a sense of duty; I’d started, I had to finish them.
After a few years of feeling guilty about not finishing Dhalgren (and wondering why I finished the Gormenghast novels), I actually looked up Dhalgren on Wikipedia to look at some reviews of it. There, I found something that not only wiped away my guilt, but also made me feel justified. What did I find? Quotes from none other than Harlan Ellison and Philip K. Dick. Here’s Harlan Ellison’s take:
“I must be honest. I gave up after 361 pages. I could not permit myself to be gulled or bored any further.” Harlan Ellison in the L. A. Times (Sunday, February 23, 1975, p. 64).
“When ‘Dhalgren‘ came out, I thought it was awful, still do. Problem is, I’m probably not smart enough to get it. I was supposed to review it for the L.A. Times, got 200 pages into it and threw it against a wall.” Harlan Ellison from an interview for the San Diego Union Tribune, 2003.
Here’s the interview with Philip K. Dick about Dhalgren:
Dick: That’s true. I read part of [Dhalgren], and Harlan Ellison and I agree that it’s a terrible book. Even though it had a lot of four-letter words and ten-letter words in it, it was still a terrible book. It should have been marketed as trash.
Interviewer: Why is it a bad book?
Dick: Oh, it’s just a bad book. It’s not necessary that I be a literary critic. I just started reading it, and I said to myself, “This is the worst trash I’ve ever read,” and I threw it away. And Harlan did the same thing, sitting up there in Sherman Oaks where he lives on that steep hill. Harlan’s not in it for profit. Harlan’s in it for the ideology of science fiction.
On reading this, my immediate thought was “Oh, thank god, I don’t have to like it.” Clearly these two didn’t like it. And this is Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison, two science fiction luminaries. If they didn’t like it, it certainly is acceptable for me to not like it. And that made everything better. Dhalgren sat on my shelf for a while longer, until I recently donated a lot of books to make moving easier. No regrets.
Sidenote: Peter Damien recently posted a brilliant corollary to this post regarding authors that he hypothetically likes, specifically Gene Wolfe and Haruki Murakami, but for some reason, really doesn’t care about them one way or the other. I wholeheartedly agree with his post and actually have the exact same feelings about Gene Wolfe myself.