Stephen King is one of the bestselling fiction writers in the world. His books have sold more than 350 million copies. These are the facts. They are indisputable. Stephen King is also one of the most gifted storytellers in the world. This is subjective opinion (one which I am in agreement with, as it happens). And this is where things get complicated. Despite his mountains of bestselling books and his legions of fans, King has never been taken seriously by the literary establishment. He is seen as a genre writer, and as we all know, genre writers are akin to child molesters.
One New York Times review called King “a writer of fairly engaging and preposterous claptrap”. In 2003, when King was honoured by the National Book Awards with a lifetime achievement award, Richard Snyder, former CEO of Simon & Schuster, described King’s work as “non-literature”. Writer Orson Scott Card, responded: “What Snyder really means is that it is not the literature preferred by the academic-literary elite.”
But the most astonishing attack came from literary critic, Harold Bloom, who said:
“The decision to give the National Book Foundation’s annual award for “distinguished contribution” to Stephen King is extraordinary … another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. 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.”
This is an extraordinary and wrong-headed accusation. Whether or not you like King’s books or his style, you would have to admit that he is a consummate crafter of prose in a way that so many of his contemporaries are not.
In the speech he made upon accepting the award, King touched upon the controversy:
“Somewhere along the line, we learned to associate the deliciousness of a cracking good yarn – that ineffable sense of things falling into place and connecting with one another in an accelerating, exhilarating cascade – with shame, as if literature shouldn’t be this much fun, and if it is, it isn’t literature … Nor do I have any patience for those who make a point of pride in saying they have never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer.”
Later in the night, author, Shirley Hazzard, responded to King:
“I don’t think giving us a reading list of those who are most read at this moment is much of a satisfaction …”
When asked about her comments in an interview in the “Paris Review”, King said:
“What Shirley Hazzard said was, I don’t think we need a reading list from you … With all due respect, we do. The keepers of the idea of serious literature have a short list of authors who are going to be allowed inside, and too often that list is drawn from people who know people, who go to certain schools, who come up through certain channels of literature. And that’s a very bad idea – it’s constraining for the growth of literature … When someone like Shirley Hazzard says, I don’t need a reading list, the door slams shut on writers like George Pelecanos or Dennis Lehane. And when those people are left out in the cold, you are losing a whole area of imagination. Those people – and I’m not talking about James Patterson, we understand that – are doing important work.”
And this is an important point. King is not talking about hack writers who churn out five or six books a year with co-writers simply to keep the money flowing; he’s talking about gifted writers (like himself) who happen to work in a field classified as “genre” or “popular” fiction. Of course, when a “literary” author such as Margaret Atwood or Kazuo Ishiguro stray into this territory, the genre labels mysteriously disappear and critics refer to them as “dystopian” or “magical realist” novels.
It would be much better if the literary snobs dropped the other labels and, instead, focused on just two: “good writing” and “bad writing”.
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