A Response on Literature and Stephen King

I came across this in a recent blog post:

Along with Harold Bloom you may be astonished and dismayed to know that Stephen King was given the National Book Foundation’s annual award for “distinguished contribution” in 2003. (‘Dumbing down American readers’, Boston Globe Op-ed, September 24, 2003. Found on their web site). He wrote, “I’ve described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind. He shares nothing with Edgar Allan Poe. What he is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis. The publishing industry has stooped terribly low to bestow King a lifetime award that has previously gone to the novelists Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and to playwright Arthur Miller. By awarding it to King they recognize nothing but the commercial value of his books, which sell in the millions but do little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat. If this is going to be the criterion in the future, then perhaps next year the committee should give the award for distinguished contribution to Danielle Steel, and surely the Nobel Prize for literature should go to J.K. Rowling.”

Since the blog didn’t have settings that would allow me to reply, and since I feel rather strongly about this, I decided to post my response here. So here we go:

As much as I love the classics – and I do – I would say that King is possibly the most talented writer living in America today. His writings are considerably more intelligent and complex, and certainly much better on a sentence-to-sentence level, than many of the highly acclaimed postmodernists. And that includes the better ones, like Roth and Auster.

Harold Bloom is a terrible academic and a snob. His argumentation is about as illogical and badly researched as you can get; and yes, I’ve read more than just his unpleasant ranting on King. His writings on the subject of William Blake, for example – a topic I do know something about – are completely ridiculous, and thankfully by now recognized as such by several academics who actually know what they’re talking about. And I seriously wonder whether Bloom has ever read King. Not that it would help: books, as they say, are like mirrors, and if an ass peers in we can hardly expect an apostle to peer out ( slightly paraphrasing Stephen Fry here).

King’s work, with the exception perhaps of some of his short stories (but not the novellas) is of the highest literary value. It engages complex social, personal, political and philosophical matters while in the process not forgetting to tell a story. (That is something certain academics cannot forgive, their whole line of work basically being the finding of excuses for writers who cannot write a decent story or keep a reader’s attention because they simply have nothing to say.)

King’s writings are full of intertextual allusions and are deeply rooted in both classical and modern literature, poetry and art in general. King’s The Dark Tower does a thousand times more justice to works like Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and Browning’s “Childe Roland” than any other book I have read in recent years. It is one of the very best books about childhood and growing up that has ever been written, an ode to imagination and the power of children while also a very realistic depiction of the hell that childhood can be. And so on – the man’s work is varied and excellent.

Bloom imagines that King’s work is primarily about disgusting monsters killing people; but that has precious little to do with the reality of the text. Monsters do sometimes feature, yes – as they do in many, if not most, works of great art, because monsters are an essential part of who we are and how we think. But to think that King’s stories are about monsters, or that they are all the same types of stories (King has written a couple of wonderful satires, non-fiction, and many great stories that do not feature anything remotely supernatural or monstrous) is simply prejudice and lack of research.  Now that is bad writing, and shameful for someone who claims to be an academic.

The perception of King as a “cheap” writer is simply an expression of Bloom’s life-strangling attitude towards art, something he shares with ridiculous figures like Theodor Adorno, who despise anything successful because their concept of art is of something exclusive, obscure and dead. These same people would have spat on Dickens and Shakespeare – who were, after all, also popular artists and for a long time considered inferior. They would spit on the lyrics of Bob Dylan like their predecessors spat on the poetry of Blake. They are the embarrassing footnotes of the future that remind us that, for the most part, art critics have no idea what they’re talking about.

I would suggest reading King’s On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft. Roger Ebert, who originally thought badly of King, was forced to reconsider his opinion when he realized that On Writing was the best book about writing since The Elements of Style. And then I would suggest reading some of the man’s actual novels. Real knowledge of a writer’s work is considerably more useful than aggregated prejudice and false impressions perpetuated by elitist academics caught up in the worship of obscurantism.

And now, back to work.

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3 Comments

  1. But don’t you know? Nothing is any good if anybody else likes it. True literature must be inaccessible, not easy-to-read by every housewife and teenage boy who stops by the supermarket book aisle.

    Personally, I nominate Terry Pratchett for one of the best authors of the modern day.

  2. I dunno… I liked King’s essay on children’s cartoons and how the stuff he watched as a kid scared the daylights out of him.

  3. I dunno… I liked King’s essay on children’s cartoons and how the stuff he watched as a kid scared the daylights out of him.

    As I said, the man’s work is varied and includes some excellent nonfiction.