The Case for Stephen King

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”.

(Image: Click on pic for credits)

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14 comments on “The Case for Stephen King

  1. Phil Canon says:

    Well said. King is a beautiful writer (and I can’t read horror)

  2. Brilliant post. I am biased because I am a big Stephen King fan but I remember him doing an interview and someone brought this subject up and he replied that ‘the world of literature was too small to have a ghetto.’

    And the sad thing is some of his work isn’t even horror, especially his short stories. Full Dark, No Stars is a great example of this. Just terrific writing.

  3. Susan Condon says:

    A great post, Derek. I’m a big Stephen King fan and agree with everything you’ve said. I loved his old work, steered away for a little while, but with Duma Key he hooked me right back in again. I’m currently reading, 11.22.63, and can’t put it down. At the end of the day it’s all about the story – the reason the latest Bond movie is so good! The very best writers spin the best yarns, create interesting characters we can relate to and draw you into their world, so that by the time the book finishes you don’t want to leave. Stephen King has always managed to do this – and far better than many other writers. Forget about the genre’s – it’s all about the enjoyment 🙂

  4. Emma says:

    King is an excellent character writer. The Stand is one of my favourite books but I do feel the endings to his stories are often a let down.
    I hate snobbery in the literary world.

    • Derek Flynn says:

      The Stand is actually one of my favourite books as well, Emma. I’d agree with you on some of the endings though. Not all, but yeah, there are some that could be better.

  5. Good topic, Derek! Millions of readers would vote King up there with the best, including my other half who is currently on the last book of The Dark Tower series, bought for him by my son who is an even bigger fan. Not being the sort to enjoy being frightened in bed at night, I’m more a fan of his films, favourites being The Shining, Misery, The Green Mile.

  6. Walter Piel says:

    If I’m not mistaken, Dickens was a purveyor of pulp-fiction in his day. Stephen King has a remarkable ability to reel you in, and keep you hooked even when you find his images dark and horrifying at times… a Wordsmith of note. Glad to see that the academic world is being taken to task for their short-sightedness.

  7. eileenjoh says:

    Wonderful post. Regardless of what the snobs may say about King, he’s the only author whose books I pre-order and his recommendations have led me to read authors that I might never have picked up otherwise.

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