Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick is probably one of the most famous science fiction writers to ever live, but few people remember his name.  At least ten of his stories have been made into motion pictures, but few people who have seen those films took the time to read the stories the films were based on.  Philip K. Dick was the first science fiction author to be published by Library of America, which seeks to issue the best American writers in uniform, durable and authoritative editions.  But when I bring up the name Philip K. Dick among my bookworm friends, most ask, who?

Why isn’t PKD more famous?  The easy answer is writers seldom become famous, even though most writers hope for literary immortality.

Movie stars, music stars, sports stars become household names with the citizens of our pop culture, but few writers do, and especially not science fiction writers. Philip K. Dick knew this back in the 1950s when he began writing.  He wanted to be more than just a science fiction writer selling stories to pulp magazines for a half cent a word.

How do writers become famous?  Write an unforgettable novel!  What’s the formula for doing that?  Did Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott know that formula when they wrote Pride and Prejudice, A Christmas Carol and Little Women, stories so famous they get a new film adaptation every decade or two?  Philip K. Dick’s success with getting filmed should have made him more famous, but it hasn’t.

Fame is of little value itself, other than to draw attention to artistic work that might be worthy of our attention.  That’s what all artists really want, to create something worthy of fame.  Philip K. Dick didn’t figure his pulp writing was worthy of literary fame, so he wrote a series of mainstream novels in the 1950s hoping to prove his writing ability at observing real life in Marin County, California.  Only one of those novels was even published during his lifetime, Confessions of a Crap Artist.  Phil’s fame rest entirely on his science fiction, and among science fiction fans, PKD had the reputation for being weird even among the denizens of the geeky, nerdy world of science fiction fandom.  I think that’s a shame because Confessions of a Crap Artist is probably his best and most sane book.

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Here I am claiming that one of a minor writer’s least famous books is his best.  How can that be?  I’m claiming that Confessions of a Crap Artist is as least as good as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, another book about marital conflict I’ve recently read.  And although I admired Freedom a good bit, I think Dick reveals better writing techniques for getting inside his characters’ heads than Franzen.  Freedom is more contemporary, sophisticated, and larger in scope, and thus more suited to modern readers, but my life resonates with Confessions of a Crap Artist, so I loved it more.

To me, the goal of literary novels, as oppose to genre novels, is to observe a place and time, and get into the heads of people to chronicle their emotion conflicts and growth.  Most bookworms prefer made up fictional worlds that have complicated plots and exciting characters that offer a thrill ride for their readers.  Often genre fans find literary novels to be about nothing in particular, and fans of genre novels, even fans of Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novels, may find Confessions of a Crap Artist boring.

Confessions of a Crap Artist is about Fay and Charley Hume’s marriage falling apart and how it’s observed by Fay’s brother. Jack Isidore, a rather oddball child man in his thirties who sees the world in a peculiar fashion.   Jack is a science fiction fan, flying saucer nut, believer in crackpot ideas, thinks the world is hollow,  that Mu and Atlantis existed, that people can receive telegraphic messages.  He think fiction offers just as much scientific evidence about reality as nonfiction.  Charley Hume calls Jack a crap artist for all his weird ideas.  Jack Isidore’s extremely literal view of reality, and his poor social skills, makes me wonder if Dick had known someone with Asperger’s.  That should appeal to modern readers.  There are end of the world cults and mad shooters in this story too, that might also appeal to modern readers.  There’s a lot to 1959 that’s very much like 2013, and that might be a selling point too.

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So why should you read this book?  If publishers didn’t want to publish Confessions of a Crap Artist when Dick wrote it back in 1959, why should you want to read it now?  Internet Science Fiction Database shows it’s had a dozen editions from 1975-2012.  Now that’s interesting.  And that’s not even counting the audiobook edition I just listened to or foreign editions with alternate titles.  What’s going on here?  I’ve heard that 99% of all books never have a second printing, much less a second edition.  Could Confessions of a Crap Artist be a minor underground classic?

I first read Confessions of a Crap Artist when it came out back in the mid-seventies, and was very impressed then.  I read a couple more of PKD’s mainstream novels and thought they captured the 1950s wonderfully, but then I forgot about them.  Recently many of PKD’s novels have been getting new uniform editions in book, ebook and audiobook formats and I bought several on sale from Audible.com.  I started listening to Confessions of a Crap Artist just before New Year and was mesmerized by the writing.  Peter Berkrot narration for the audiobook perfectly captured the first person inner thoughts of the four main characters, Jack Isidore, his sister Fay, her husband Charley, and Fay’s lover Nat Anteil.

The book also captured many wonderful details that I remember about the 1950s.

Why remember the year 1959?   You could read 1959: The Year Everything Changed by Fred Kaplan, a book I’ve read twice because it’s so fascinating.  You could read some of the books that came out in 1959 to try and capture the feel of that year, but if you look at the list I linked to at Wikipedia, many of the books that came out that year weren’t about 1959, they were science fiction books about the future, like Starship Troopers or The Sirens of Titan, or they were best sellers like Psycho and Goldfinger, which I hope aren’t the real 1959, or books like The Tin Drum or Hawaii, which are histories of earlier times.

I remember 1959, but just barely.  I was 7 until November 25th, when I turned 8.  I was living in New Jersey at the time.  But over in California, Philip K. Dick was living in Marin County, and he wrote a book about life in his place and time that captures 1959 better than anything I’ve ever read before.  So why would a science fiction writer back in 1959 want to write about suburban life?  Well, Philip K. Dick told his publisher that he was quitting science fiction to write mainstream novels.  He wrote several novels before giving up, and returned to writing science fiction.  When he did, he wrote is science fiction masterpiece, The Man in the High Castle, which won a Hugo Award.  I’m thinking 1959-1960 was a peak creative period for PKD.

So you might be wondering by now, why I would be trying to convince you to read a book that no publisher wanted when it was written, and was only published by a small press just seven years before the writer died in 1982, and is over 50 years old.  Shouldn’t it be lame and dated?  For some reason Confessions of a Crap Artist amazed me.  It has a 3.63 average rating over that GoodReads, so not everyone is impressed.

Why am I so impressed and others aren’t?  I hate to encourage you to go buy a book and that you read and think, “What is that Harris talking about?  This book stinks!”

I’ve been reading and rereading books by Philip K. Dick most of my life.  I’ve read biographies about him, read countless articles and interviews about and with him, listened to tapes of his conversations and I even visited his gravesite.   I now think Confessions of a Crap Artist is Philip K. Dick’s best book.  First published in 1975, but written in 1959, and in late 2012 appeared on audio from Brilliance Audio, running 8 hours and 13 minutes.

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This still doesn’t answer:  Why remember the year 1959?  I’m not talking about nostalgia.  When we read Pride and Prejudice, are we learning about 1813?  When we read The Great Gatsby are we exploring 1925?  When we read The New Testament, are we time traveling back to 70 AD?  Yes and no.  A photograph or film of 1925 or 1959 is more revealing of what reality was like than a novel or even a nonfiction book.  Books give us words and ideas from a writer long ago.  So Confessions of a Crap Artist is really a tour of the mind of Philip K. Dick in 1959.  PKD was a certain kind of reporter about a very specific place and time.

Now I’ve mentioned before Dick was a weird guy.  He has a reputation for being weird, but Confessions of a Crap Artist is vivid, exact and very sane.  It’s a sane book about how everyone is crazy to one degree or another.  At first you think Jack Isidore is the only Joker in the deck, but as you read on, and get into the heads of the characters, you realize there are no normal people in this story.  By the time you finish the book you might be thinking there are no normal people in this world.

This is the second time I’ve “read” Confessions of a Crap Artist, or more precisely, I listened to it this time, and the narrator Peter Berkrot made it come alive in a vivid dramatic reading that caught the four principal characters perfectly.  Confessions of a Crap Artist is told through four first person accounts in a round robin order, so the reader feels like they’re inside the heads of Jack Isidore, his sister Fay Hume, her husband Charley, and Fay’s lover Nat Anteil.  This works much better on audio I think, especially with Peter Berkrot’s reading, because you actually feel the different personalities.  PKD did a fantastic job of thinking in different POVs.

Philip K. Dick is famous for writing science fiction, but Confessions of a Crap Artist isn’t science fiction.  To the public outside of the science fiction community, Philip K. Dick is known for several movies based on his novels:  Blade Runner, Total Recall, Screamers, Minority Report, Impostor, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, Radio Free Albemuth and The Adjustment BureauConfessions of a Crap Artist was filmed in France in 1992 as Confessions d’un Barjo.  It’s not available on Netflix and is out of print at Amazon, but some used VHS copies are available.

Charlie Hume calls his brother-in-law a crap artist because Jack Isidore collects facts about the world that most people consider nutty, stupid or insane.  Jack looks to his science fiction magazines for scientific validation of reality.  He’s involved with flying saucer cults, and hangs out with people who channel past lives and believes higher beings are preparing the end of the world for Earth.

I remember my uncles talking about Bridey Murphy, George Adamski, Edgar Cayce, and other writers who used to pray on crap artists of the 1950s.  I thought my uncles were nuts.  Most people think the 1960s was when times got wild, but the real 1950s wasn’t Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best, it was much closer to The Twilight Zone.

Of course, I was a science fiction fan back then, and that was considered pretty nutty too.  Another thing I remember from the late 1950s and early 1960s, was how everyone wanted to go to a psychiatrist.  Fay Hume goes to her analyst three times a week and brags about it.  Fay does not work, takes care of two little girls, but uses her charm, good looks, and manipulative ways, to get ahead.  On the outside Fay is a model wife, community organizer, and charming.  Charley, her husband thinks she’s a psychopath.  Nat, her lover thinks of her as childish and willful, but totally alluring.  Jack, her brother sees Fay in a particular strange analytical way.

Charley Hume was like a lot of men I remember from back then, he was obsessed about getting ahead, owning a big car and house, and having a beautiful wife and kids to show off.   Think Don Draper from Mad Men.  Finally, Nat Anteil, is the young college kid who could have been a beatnik.  He worked part time, him and his wife rode bikes, wore jeans, and wanted to be intellectuals.  In a few years they would become hippies probably.  Confessions of a Crap Artist reveals itself as an embryo of the 1960s.  The 1960s wasn’t that radically different from the 1950s if you knew where to look for the seeds of the sixties.

On the Road, which came out in 1957 has a reputation for being the bible of the Beats, and people remember it as one of the defining books about the 1950s.  But it was really about the 1940s.  Ditto for A Catcher in the Rye, another 1950s classics.  I think Confessions of a Crap Artist is a detail painting of 1959.

Maybe given enough time Philip K. Dick will be remembered for his literary efforts in the 1950s, not because he wrote about the future, but because he wrote about the moment, his life in 1959.  I’d love to know more about his life then and who the models were for Jack, Fay, Charley and Nat.

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JWH – 1/7/13

49 thoughts on “Confessions of a Crap Artist by Philip K. Dick”

  1. I’m not sure that I buy the argument that “few people remember his name.” I’m often in contact with English student circles and he’s ALWAYS read in one class or another. In terms of a sci-fi author known to a wider public I suspect he’s in the top three or four…. Yes, often people read only a few of his works…. But, more than most.

  2. That’s interesting. I’ve never met anyone who’s had to read PKD for an English class. Oh, I think Dick is among the most famous of science fiction writers, but I wouldn’t think 1 in a 100 of Americans would know who he was. I just did a Google search on “Philip K. Dick” using the quotes and got 4,860,000. I did “Jack White” and got 14,400,000. He has minor fame in the music world. I did “Lady Gaga” and got 287,000,000. I did “Roy Orbinson” who had a couple hits back in the 1960s. He got 8,290,000.

    If you’re part of a certain subculture, PKD might be well known. But I think in the world at large he’s pretty much an unknown. That’s partly due to the lack of fame that writers get.

    1. Strange, he is read in virtually all genre fiction classes in college. My fiance, an English major a handful of years ago, read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Ubik for class — at the University of Texas. And, due to the movies, people read his novels…

    2. Im American English teacher at graduate science university in Beijing,China . We have 4 week class in PKD science fiction. We read Beyond Lies the Wub, Roog and The Colony, watch Discovery Science doc Prophets of Science Fiction with Chinese subtitles and even one student ask me recommendations on a PKD novel for her to read..Just spreadin’ PKD in China.

      1. Yes, James, we also discuss LiuCixin’s Three Body Problem. Students know it well in China and is a best seller and Ken Liu’s translation to English will spread it abroad..I think it will renew interest in SF in general in China which historically has not been read very much and thru that trend, PKD will also be more well known. BTW I enjoy this discussion of PKD.. Too bad WordPress is blocked in China .

    3. Have to agree with you, James. I’ve been amazed by how many people I’ve spoken to lately who have no clue who Philip K Dick is… I just assumed he was much better known! Even some of my old geek/science-fiction friends didn’t know who he was when I mentioned him. The most common response I get is “Who??” (Thanks for the awesome review – looking fwd to reading this book! I loved Puttering About in a Small Land so I’m sure I’ll enjoy this one too… )

      1. All the other PKD non-SF novels have shown up on Audible recently, including Puttering About in a Small Land. I read Puttering years ago, and have been meaning to give it a second go. I’ll do it by listening this time. If you’re a PKD fan, they also release the audio edition of his 5-volume collection of short stories.

      2. Thanks! yes I just got that 5-vol collection on audio — I’m reviewing all of Philip K Dick’s works with the guys over at SFF Audio. So definitely a big PKD (and audiobook) fan! Really looking forward to hearing all his short stories narrated…🙂

      3. Then I’ve got to make time for podcasts. I have the hardest time fitting them in with my reading and listening routines. But I’m obviously missing out. I recently bought 12-15 PKD titles on Audible when they were on sale at 50%. Many of the new titles are $7.56 to members, so I’m going to stock up on more. Hope I live long enough to listen to them all. I have squirreled away enough audiobooks to keep me listening till I turn 100.

      4. It’s surprising really,considering he’s now accepted by the Library of America,so you’d think he’d be known to most science fiction readers.Still,it means he’s still something special,and still not entirely intellectual property.You don’t have to read him just for that reason.

        He never was highly regarded in the USA as he was even in Canada,let alone abroad,and as I’ve said before,this is probably a hangover from those days.

  3. We just watched the latest Director’s Cut of Blade Runner. I think it’s called “The Final Cut Edition” and I was so upset that PKD’s name doesn’t appear in the pre-movie credits. The screenwriters that adapted the book got credit before the movie, but PKD is only in the after movie credits. Kind of ridiculous!

    1. That’s a shame. PKD’s name should be on the main screen and box cover. I bought a special edition of Blade Runner that I think has 7 different editions. My favorite is still the theatrical release.

  4. I’m actually reading one of his books at the moment, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and I’m enjoying it so far. I was surprised to see a very similar name – you mention Jack Isidore and there’s a John Isidore in this story. Clearly he liked that name!
    Lynn😀

    1. I noticed the two Isidores too. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has always been one of Philip K. Dick’s most popular and admired books, but I’m now thinking Confessions of a Crap Artist, which is practically not known by his fans, is really his best book.

      1. You might be right,but I’m not sure the’re comparible.They were written at very different times in different circumstances,and DADOES does add a lot to an already strong and consummate body of work.It’s also been said that “The Man in the High Castle” is better than DADOES,which once again,is probably true,but are they really comparable though?

        As I’ve said,COACA was written the same year as “Time Out of Joint” was published,which once again can be said to be a better novel in literary excellence,but TOOJ also has it’s merits in merging the concerns of general literature with SF.TOOJ as we know,was published in hardcover and not really marketed as SF or mainstream.

        Don’t worry,I think COACA can be called a modern classic of twentieth century literature,so I can’t really disagree with you,but some of his novels seem to stand alone.

        COACA isn’t known to his fans?Do they just read his SF then,or just SF?

      2. I’m quite fond of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? but I’m not sure if it’s one of PKD’s best books. Of, the science fiction novels after his masterpiece The Man in the High Castle, I think Martian Time-Slip is better because it’s more coherent. Time Magazine picked Ubik as his best, but I’m not fond of that one. I do think Time Out of Joint is PKD’s best 1950s science fiction book. Overall, Confessions of a Crap Artist is still my overall favorite. However, I haven’t reread VALIS lately, and I remember being very impressed with it too.

        As I read and reread PKD, my favorites change.

      3. I don’t agree that Dadoes isn’t one of his best books.It’s themes of empathy and transcendance,not to mention it’s political and social concerns,make it a significant novel that stands among the best of sf I think.I love the scene where Wilber Mercer actually comes to life.That was truly brilliant and one of the great highlights of the book.Still,your choices are up to you.

        To be honest,I think “Galactic-Pot Healer” is among his best.It’s one of his lighter,funnier novels,that still deals with serious themes.

        I suppose I have to agree with you about “Martian Time-Slip”,it is a book that could be said to be made of literary gold.It has a very realistic tonal quality compared to the stranger atmosphere of DADOES.The differences aren’t comparable,but I thought DADOES was written in a nice,clear prose.However,I agree more with you “Ubik”.While it’s conceptually brilliant and farcical,the plot concerning the non-death of Glen Runciter and Ubik,begins with unnecessary rigmarol I think for a consideral length,with the rest of the book being too short and rushed rather than developed.It could have done without all that I think,and would have the potential to be a much greater book.Still,it’s a choice for many,and they have a right to have their favourites,but I much prefer “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch”.

        “Time Out of Joint” was a unique novel for it’s time,and defied being labeled as SF or mainstream.It still stands as one of his best novels today.

        “Valis” is a difficult,more personal choice.It’s tone is extremely mainstream though.

        Yes,it’s often hard to say what are his best books.He wrote so many,but the standard was consistantly high.

  5. Richard, I’m currently rereading Time Out of Joint, which was Dick’s first hardback. It does bridge his literary efforts with his science fiction. I wrote an essay recently for SF Signal that covers the Literary Novels of PKD.

    http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2015/12/the-literary-novels-of-philip-k-dick/

    It certainly would have been an interesting alternate history if PKD had been discovered as a literary writer in the 1950s and achieved the same recognition as Jack Kerouac.

    1. Yes I read it,and left a comment on it.Did you read it?

      Yes it would,but being more famous would have had a different impact I think.

      Sorry I have two comments,I didn’t think the first one got through until now.You can take the second one off.Thank you.

      1. I saw the comment – it was very flattering. I just didn’t connect that you were the author of both comments. It sounds like you’ve been studying PKD quite a bit. What are your favorite biographies and critical works?

      2. I’ve read four books about him,which are “Only Apparently Real” by Paul Williams,”Divine Invasions” by Larry Sutin,”The Pocket Essential PKD” by Andrew Butler,and more recently,”Philip K. Dick and the World We Live In” by Evan Lampe,of whose blogs I suppose you’ve seen.I’d like to read more books about him,but I don’t just read Philip K. Dick anymore.

        Did you belong to the old Philip K. Dick Society,of which I was a member?

      3. I read Only Apparently Real and Divine Invasions but a long time ago. I didn’t know about Evan Lampe or his blogs. How come you stop reading PKD books? No, I wasn’t a member of the Philip K. Dick Society. Is it defunct now?

        I get on a PKD kick now and then and read or reread some of his books. I can only take so much PKD before I burn out. But I always come back. I have a good friend who read Dick also, and we’ve been discussing him for decades. I did visit PKD’s grave in Colorado back about 25 years ago.

      4. Evan Lampe,known as Tashqueedagg,first of all runs the Only Kings and Americans blog,which surveys the entire collection of books in the LOA,including PKD novels,where he looks for anarchist and liberterine themes in American Literature,so it’s not surprsing that he looks at Dick’s stuff from a political and sociological viewpoint,rather than his metaphysical themes.He also has one called Philip K. Dick WordPress,that looks at his short stories and a few early novels besides articles,which take a similar stance in viewing his fiction to the other blog.

        No,what I meant was,I don’t only read Dick’s books anymore.I reread “The Man in the High Castle” and “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” last year,but I want to reread more of his books again.Three years ago,I read “Humpty Dumpty in Oakland”,but I haven’t yet read “Gather Yourself Together” and “Voices From the Streets”.”Dr Futurity is the only one of his sf novels I haven’t read.

        The Philip K. Dick Society ran from 1983 to 1993.You’ll know I suppose,that it had a good impact on the recognition has today.I’m glad I was part of that,and joined it originally to help keep alive the work of an author who I felt was sadly neglected in his lifetime.

        What kind of experience did you have when you went to his graveside?

      5. We had to drive a long way out of way to go to Fort Morgan. It’s a pretty little town, but it’s in the middle of cattle feedlot country, and it smells. We went to the town library and got directions to the graveyard. It took my wife and I quite a bit of searching to find PKD’s grave. He’s buried with his twin sister who died as a infant.

        It was a PKD surreal to be at the grave. I had never even been back to my father’s graveside at the time. I’ve never gone to any other famous person’s grave. Here’s what it looks like

        PKD's grave

      6. Yes I’ve seen it before,but nice to see it anyway.Yes I imagine it was very Dickian standing besides the grave of an author you only knew from his books!

        We know the loss of his twin sister had a pivotal impact on his life and shaped his fiction.I wonder if she’d have been a great writer too.perhaps she’d have been as strange and inventive as him,but done more lyrically,with an embroided prose.

      7. Yes I’ve seen it before,but nice to see it anyway.Yes I imagine it was very Dickian standing besides the grave of an author you only knew from his books!

        We know the loss of his twin sister had a pivotal impact on his life and shaped his fiction.I
        wonder if she’d have been a great writer too.

        Perhaps she’d have been as strange and inventive as him,but done more lyrically,with an embroided prose.

        I edited this second one.You can take out the first.Thank you.

  6. COACA is excellent.It will of course be read by fans of his sf,but will it be read by those who aren’t?Since his sf novels are housed in the LOA,they will probably be read by a wider audience,which is fine,but that should also include COACA,the only one of his mainstream novels to be accepted by an institution caring for America’s greatest authors who are now immortalised in stone.Why haven’t they published more of them?

    Despite this,I’m sure he hasn’t achieved the status of authors such as Jack Kerouac,a contemporary of Dick’s,who was finding fame perhaps strangely enough when Dick was penning his own mainstream novels,but failing to have them published.Probably the fact that he still isn’t entirely public property,makes him something more special than more famous authors,but I wish more people would read his general fiction,assuming they don’t.

    The same year he wrote COACA,”Time Out of Joint” was published.It was the best book he probably ever wrote that combined his mainstream and sf ambitions,but it’s reception or the lack of it by the wider field of literature,dissapointed him,and he changed tack.If he didn’t succeed with this one,is it surprising he didn’t find success with the those that weren’t published?

    1. That’s okay. I got to read the messages and reply. I just ordered The Search for Philip K. Dick by Anne R. Dick. All our talk about PKD made me want to try another biography.

      1. I sort of wish we had conducted this thread over at the SF Signal site. I wonder if more people would have joined in. Richard, I wonder how many PKD readers are like us and read Dick’s novels that weren’t science fiction.

      2. Yes I seen it and commented there.It depends upon what they want to read,just SF or that and non-SF.It depends on whether they want to move on from SF I think.It seems less likely that those who don’t read his SF or not SF at all,will read them.

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