Notes on the Atrocities
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Thursday, November 20, 2003  

Last night, Stephen King was honored at the National Book Awards for his "Distinguished Contribution to American Letters." It was a controversial selection; past winners have included Arthur Miller and Philip Roth, but also Oprah Winfrey (1999). So, is this an appalling sell-out by a media-funded foundation (as the National Book Foundation is), or an admirable nod of the head to a man who has, if not exactly enriched the American literary canon, at least promoted it? Well, to this question, we have a fairly clear answer: sell out. It appears the National Book Foundation was trying to get a little press. (It worked.) From a Times article two months ago:

In interviews board members and the executive director of the foundation said they chose to honor Mr. King for a host of reasons: his storytelling skill, his promotion of less-established writers, his donations to libraries and schools and the sheer volume of his work, which has found a multitude of readers. Although the honor denotes a contribution to American letters, several board members said they also considered the cultural influence of his many works adapted for film and television....

Several board members said they believed it was time that the awards began to define "American letters" more broadly than just the kind of literary fiction read by an elite.

"It has to take more chances, and it has to explore different areas of writing," said Isisara Bey, a new board member who is also vice president of corporate affairs at the music division of Sony

A subsequent question--and a more interesting one--is: so what? Why should we care about whether the publishers of American literature are selling out? It's partly interesting because it's at the heart of a culture war. You would expect the King selection to ignite delicious derision from the likes of Harold Bloom, and you'd be right. So:

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. The publishing industry has stooped terribly low to bestow on 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 its award for distinguished contribution to Danielle Steel, and surely the Nobel Prize for literature should go to J.K. Rowling.

But it's not just that culture wars are fun--there's something else here. Bloom can be dismissed, at least partly, because he refuses to admit that there are writers not educated at Oxford or Harvard who are every bit a match to his beloved Kipling and Keats (all right, maybe not Keats), and that some of them have pushed literature back towards pop fiction. Bloom's always been at the center of things because he loves to conflate culture and the arts, and people love to attack him for it.

But substantially, I agree with him here. The real question is whether literature and pop fiction are different. It's a question the postmodern critique has dealt a punishing blow. If art is subjective, why can't we call pulp fiction literature? But the postmodern critique doesn't argue that all definitions are useless--subjectivity doesn't mean we call science fiction science, for example. Literature and pop fiction are different--as different as literature is from poetry. This isn't a subjective statement--they're intentionally different; they're not just two ends of quality on the same spectrum, they're actually different things altogether.

Literature is an art, and this means using sophisticated and original techniques to communicate something more complex than plot. When an author creates a novel, she isn't trying to tell a story, she's trying to deepen understanding. The plot is one of several elements--metaphor, symbol, form, themes among others--that accomplishes this. Pop fiction, on the other hand is only trying to tell a story. We call pop fiction "genre fiction" for a reason--the "genre" describes the form and parameters of the story. Working within a genre means conforming to those standards.

Stephen King is a quintessential pop fiction writer. In book after book he's honed his structure so that there's absolutely no deviation. No one is seriously going to argue there's some deeper meaning, some kind of complexity, to a Stephen King book. What's the basis for judging a Stephen King novel? Whether it's got an interesting story or not, right? Definitionally, that is pop fiction.

What's sad about the National Book Foundation's award isn't that they honored King, though. It's that they yet again missed an opportunity to engage a new generation of literature readers. Folks like Bloom decry the death of literature in America, and he's hard to argue with. Despite the dozens of MFA programs across the country, the state of American literature is dismal (now that's a subjective statement). But look elsewhere and literature is thriving. Each year I study the Booker short list, knowing that I'll enjoy four of the five novels nominated--and yet probably won't have heard of more than one or two of the authors.

If the National Book Foundation wanted to boost sales and get a lot of press, it should be promoting risky, bold literature, not tired pop fiction. In his condemnation of the King nomination, Bloom used the Harry Potter series to make an astute point: "'Harry Potter' will not lead our children on to Kipling's Just So Stories or his Jungle Book." And neither will reading Stephen King encourage readers to pick up Roddy Doyle, Philip Roth, or Stephen Millhauser. The reason isn't because King's not good enough--it's because he's writing in a different genre. You might as reasonably expect readers of the Dalai Lama to pick up the new Peter Carey. The saddest part of the whole story is that the publishers who back the National Book Foundation seem not to know that. Is it any wonder they're not publishing relevant literature?

posted by Jeff | 11:27 AM |
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