Philip K. Dick never really wanted to be a science fiction writer -- or at least he didn’t want to be one until he abandoned hope that publishers were going to accept his mainstream novels. His goal during the 1950s was to become a respected author of novels that examined everyday life in the United States. He failed.
Dick did not have the literary career he desired. I wondered which writers of his generation did have that career -- and what they did that he didn’t. These questions led me to a very minor research project. From the Annals of American Fiction I culled the names of twelve important American authors who were born within a few years of Dick (1928) and published their first works of fiction during the time Dick was trying to publish his mainstream novels (1955 to 1960). Their careers differed widely. Some are still famous today; others have nearly been forgotten. A few continue producing novels almost every year, while one wrote only a single book.
With that said, here are the Distinguished Dozen (with the years of birth and first book in parenthesis):
Thomas Berger (1924/1958)
Evan S. Connell (1924/1957)
John Knowles (1926/1959)
Harper Lee (1926/1960)
Edward Lewis Wallant (1926/1960)
James Herlihy (1927/1959)
Shirley Ann Grau (1929/1955)
Paule Marshall (1929/1955)
John Barth (1930/1956)
E. L. Doctorow (1931/1960)
John Updike (1932/1957)
Philip Roth (1933/1959)
It doesn’t seem that the first books have much in common. There are short story collections, fictionalized memoirs, ruminations on contemporary life, even a western. With the possible exception of Barth’s The Floating Opera, the books didn’t break new ground in style or form -- but then neither did Dick’s. Since the answers did not lie in the books, I went to the authors’ resumes. Maybe entries there pointed more clearly to literary ascendancy than those in Dick’s resume.
It turned out that in education and residency Dick was following his own path, one not likely to lead to success. All of the Distinguished Dozen spent at least three years in college; nine had bachelor’s degrees, of whom five had done graduate work and two earned master’s degrees. In contrast, Dick, though he lived in Berkeley until he was thirty, never finished any college classes. What he did instead was voraciously read for ten years.
Further, eight of the Distinguished Dozen spent at least two years (and usually much longer) working in New York City before their first books were published. Some got jobs there before deciding on a literary career, though at least one arrived specifically to make contacts. For Dick, on the other hand, schmoozing was apparently not an essential part of a literary career. As far as I know, he never visited New York in the 1950s and never met anyone connected to the literary scene there. Science fiction publishers looked only at marketability. Mainstream publishers, I suspect, saw themselves also as guardians of culture.
And that’s where the most striking feature of Dick’s resume helped him not at all. For although he had no academic credentials and didn’t know anyone in New York, he had a long list of publications. By 1960 he had published nine novels and more than eighty short stories -- vastly more than the entire output of the Distinguished Dozen put together. Alas, they were all science fiction. To mainstream publishers they may have represented not Dick’s talent but his unworthiness to join the world of serious literature.
There’s an ironic twist to his rejection, though. Suppose he hadn’t given up hope for his mainstream novels in 1960 and hadn’t decided to concentrate on science fiction. Suppose instead that he kept futilely plugging away or gave up writing altogether and opened a record store. Then he never would have become a famous author. No one would have cared about his early work, and the mainstream novels would have remained unpublished.