It's good to be King
September 16, 2003 1:12 PM   Subscribe

Stephen King, literary genius? "That they could believe that there is any literary value there or any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy," says Harold Bloom. Mr. King to be awarded an honorary National Book Award for lifetime achievement, joining the likes of Roth, Updike, and Bellow.
posted by _sirmissalot_ (81 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
On the bright side, he's finally got me scared.
posted by hackly_fracture at 1:16 PM on September 16, 2003

My inclination is to agree with Bloom. But I've read Different Seasons, and it's amazingly good. Pure, solid-to-the-core American fiction. I didn't think The Shining and The Gunslinger were so bad either. This doesn't necessarily mean that a lifetime of pumping out stuff like "The Stand" deserves a National Book award.

But it's hard to argue with the size of his footprint in the literary world. And putting him up against Roth, who writes mainly about masturbation and mutual masturbation, hardly makes a case to exlcude him from eligibility for a special award.
posted by scarabic at 1:18 PM on September 16, 2003

He may not be a literary genius (which is purely subjective) but Pet Semetary scared the living bejesus outta me when I was a kid. He's being honored for lifetime achievement, not for aesthetic accomplishements. As one of the best-selling authors of our time, he's tapping into something. I haven't enjoyed much of his stuff after Misery, but his early work is worth reading.

Harold Bloom is a jealous windbag who needs to climb out of Shakespeare's decaying ass.
posted by archimago at 1:20 PM on September 16, 2003 [7 favorites]

I kind of agree with archimago - I've borne the brunt of many jokes by standing up for King's abilities among my friends, who all fancy themselves literary critics. Frankly, apart from his ability to scare the pants off people, it's his abilities in characterization and dialogue that I think testify to his merit as an author of high standing. His characters remain some of the most vivid and realistic in my mind of any that I've ever read.
So, cheers to Stephen King!
posted by annathea at 1:23 PM on September 16, 2003

He's very good at what he does. What he does is not the same thing as what his detractors in the literary community do. They've opted to consider themselves artists, King knows that his job is to entertain.

All would be well and good if he wasn't so damn rich while they aren't.
posted by Space Coyote at 1:26 PM on September 16, 2003

i could do without stephen king...
posted by Tryptophan-5ht at 1:26 PM on September 16, 2003

What's irritating is that Bloom clearly has never read a Stephen King novel. He only has a second-hand prejudice against them. While some of King's books clearly have no literary merit whatever, several of them are extremely well-crafted and bear as much critical scrutiny as Moll Flanders. Among these I would include: The Stand, The Shining, and especially The Dead Zone, which was taught in an English Class I took in college, to the loud acclaim of just about everyone in the room.

Which is not to say that he's some kind of literary master, but sheesh: the guy is the best selling novelist in the history of the medium. He's our Dickens, whether we want to admit it or not.
posted by vraxoin at 1:27 PM on September 16, 2003

"This is probably the most exciting thing to happen to me in my career as a writer since the sale of my first book in 1973," said King of the award...

Good for him.
posted by xmutex at 1:36 PM on September 16, 2003

King may not produce high-faulting literary works, but he has made a huge impact on fiction and the horror and suspense genre. The sheer volume and wide range of stuff he's written, some of it very good, deserves a lifetime achievement.

(I would also argue that John Updike isn't much to write home about comparing King to him isn't much.)

"Harold Bloom is a jealous windbag who needs to climb out of Shakespeare's decaying ass" is the funniest thing I've read in a long time.
posted by aacheson at 1:37 PM on September 16, 2003

I have a difficult time forming a solid opinion about his work because I read so much of it when I was a young, dumb teenager. I loved it then, but don't really trust my younger instincts. He never bored me but he also never pushed me to think differently about the world and how I experienced it. More like escapist fantasy . . . I don't know.

What's his best novel? I'm going to pick one and (re)read it.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 1:43 PM on September 16, 2003

i find it funny that king is classified as horror, when most of his writing really does not fall into the horror catagory. some of his books were flops (tommyknockers come to mind) but he has some great books. by far the dark tower series is his masterpiece and if you read it you will see why. since he has finished the series, and all the new books will start being released in november, i am rereading them now. it's amazing how much he has integrated many of his stories into the dark tower series.

say what you will about king, but a hack he most certainly is not.
posted by chrisroberts at 1:53 PM on September 16, 2003

Dear friends: just because you like it, it doesn't mean it's any good. And just because you hate it, it doesn't mean it's the worst. Just sayin'.

"Harold Bloom is a jealous windbag who needs to climb out of Shakespeare's decaying ass" is the funniest thing I've read in a long time.

You need to get out more.
posted by solistrato at 2:04 PM on September 16, 2003

posted by bradth27 at 2:05 PM on September 16, 2003 [1 favorite]

I loved it then, but don't really trust my younger instincts. He never bored me but he also never pushed me to think differently about the world

This is a fair comment. But not all fiction is geared toward edification of the reader, either spiritual, political, or otherwise. Michael Chabon's comments in the AP piece pertain to this issue:

"The 20th century was supposedly about breaking down those barriers between high art and popular culture..."

I did a fiction workshop with Chabon last year and, sitting at the head of a class full of young writers, he tirelessly advocated for... can you guess who? The READER.

As far as technique goes, King's got a lot to teach young writers, who frequently abandon the reader's needs for grounding, detail, and continuity. He never drops the camera, never reveals himself, never substitutes a comment for an image. King's had a very very good influence on more than one generation of new writers in this regard. I believe this is what Chabon is talking about when he says "I think he's a force for good in the world."

Ideally, I look for engagement and edification from literature. But no one ever penalized James Joyce at award time for being inaccessible. I don't think we should deny King recognition either.

In other news, he also experimented with using technology to overturn the whole publishing business model (to little effect, but at least he explored it).
posted by scarabic at 2:11 PM on September 16, 2003

I dunno, man... As far as I've been able to discern, King is sort of a watered-down Raymond Chandler with a love of Lovecraft instead of detective fiction. Compare King's "On Writing" with any of Chandler's essays on fiction, and the parrallels become incredibly clear. And while King and Chandler both have their ups (The Shining, The Long Goodbye) and downs (Gerald's Game, The Lady in the Lake), it seems to me that Chandler reaches much greater heights without hitting such intolerable lows. I think King has occaisionally gotten really caught up in genre and pop fiction, giving us crap like the Stand, while Chandler always managed to stay pretty cynical about what he was doing.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that, yes, a genre writer could concievably have enough literary merit to deserve such an award, but that King isn't up to the snuff of a few who have come before him. That said, he might deserve the award just for getting people to read in this illiterate age, though I don't think he points people on to anything beyond the usual bestselling crap.
posted by kaibutsu at 2:15 PM on September 16, 2003

I never appreciated King until I read The Bachman Books. Now I wonder why he writes the other crap. "The Long Walk" is still one of my favorite novels.
posted by revbrian at 2:19 PM on September 16, 2003

"The horror! The horror!"
Well, the simple fact is that Stephen King is not an "author" at all. He's a genre writer who's fairly good at selling airplane reading. Now the award says a lot about the current decadence of literary taste and aesthetic standards as a whole. Perhaps their excuse will be

"Established in 1988, the honorary award cites not only literary merit, but "a lifetime of service." The Maine-based writer has provided scholarships for the state's high school students, and made numerous charitable contributions through a foundation he runs with his wife, Tabitha."
posted by 111 at 2:22 PM on September 16, 2003

posted by signal at 2:26 PM on September 16, 2003

"...Stephen King is not an "author" at all. He's a genre writer..."

That's a fairly subtle distinction. Sort of like how Kerouac got a rejection letter to the effect of "This isn't writing. This is typing." In fact, I would think that a genre writer is a type of author, not an entirely seperate entity. The whole development of the expressly literary author is kind of strange to me. Anything can be literature if handled properly.

(this discussion make me think of those few, shining glory days of bookfilter. *sigh*)
posted by kaibutsu at 2:31 PM on September 16, 2003

What's the difference between this and say, a Grammy award which is basically all about sales figures? The guy's sold a bazillion books. If nothing else, he deserves it for getting that many people to pick up a book.
posted by reidfleming at 2:34 PM on September 16, 2003

I have no intention to applaud or badmouth King, but the poster who claimed Roth writes only about masturbation has clearly not read Roth in many many years...he has an outstanding body of great work since Portnoy's Complaint, an early lightweight book.

Awards: I am reminded of Edmund Wilson, one of America's great men of letters, who said he only accpeted awards if there was money that went along with it.
posted by Postroad at 2:40 PM on September 16, 2003

Now the award says a lot about the current decadence of literary taste and aesthetic standards as a whole.

No, not really. But that comment says a lot about what you may or may not have stuck way up between your buttocks.
.... I'd be interested in finding out what you might consider to be in "good literary taste." Who's your favorite author?
posted by bradth27 at 2:41 PM on September 16, 2003

Scarabic... Roth mostly writes about masturbation?! American Pastoral (Pulitzer), Patrimony and The Counterlife (each won National Book Critics Circle Award), Operation Shylock (PEN/Faulkner Award), Sabbath's Theatre (National Book Award), I Married a Communist (Ambassador Book Award)... with one exception those were all written in the 90s. He also won the National Medal of Arts in 1998. His work this decade (The Human Stain and The Dying Animal) has been stunning.

The man's been writing for 40 years and you're judging his output based on his first novel? If there's a better chronicler of the male psyche than Roth, I've never read him/her.

I've only read half of one King book. He seems like a firm believer in "Never use 1 word when 3 will do!". Now that's masturbation!
posted by dobbs at 2:44 PM on September 16, 2003

I recently went back and reread The Stand to see how it would hold up now that my reading standards are a little more, um, developed than they were a decade ago... I noticed a couple of things: King completely pisses all over most of the things that I value in good writing. But at the same time, I was completely drawn in and blasted my way through the book in a series of multi-hour reading binges.

I think the thing about King is that he does absolutely nothing with language. Nothing at all. The guy's prose is as flashy as a dead carp, and right now literary merit is pretty tied to style. But King's good at lots of other aspects of craft that are important but not particularly respected these days- it takes very delicate pacing to create suspense, and he's very good at that. And the guy's got a pretty huge imagination, even if he's not always an ace at describing the crazy ideas.

He's not an all-time great writer, but he knows pacing and plot, and there are lots of people getting more respect who wouldn't know a plot if it bit them on the ass.
posted by COBRA! at 2:44 PM on September 16, 2003

Getting people to read is not in itself an amazing thing, is it? I mean, if viewership of Fox News is up, is that great for Western Civilization since it means more people are paying attention to current events? I've never understand that line of reasoning. It's like the gateway drug thing - you know, start 'em out on Danielle Steele, the next thing you know they're reading William Gaddis.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 2:47 PM on September 16, 2003

"...Stephen King is not an "author" at all. He's a genre writer..."

What century are you living in, the 50s? Come on, all writers write in a genre of some variety. Stephen King's just happens to have a bigger section at the Barnes and Noble. Get over it.

Just because something's popular doesn't mean it sucks.
posted by Hildegarde at 3:16 PM on September 16, 2003 [2 favorites]

This appears to boil down to the fallacy that genre or 'pop' fiction, can't be artistic. That the term 'genre' is some depraved stereotypical catchall bin into which literary critics throw anything they don't personally understand. I will never take seriously any self-styled 'critic' (including some in this thread) who dismiss genre fiction as something less than art.

King's not personally one of my faves (I will never forgive him for "IT" ) but I will acknowledge that he is one of the best storytellers of the 20th century. His works will be remembered long after we're all dead. When it comes to his critics, Mark Twain got the last word. So will King.
posted by ZachsMind at 3:24 PM on September 16, 2003

...Besides, I'd read BtVS fanfiction over Roth, Updike, or Bellow any day of the week. One man's trash and all that...
posted by ZachsMind at 3:36 PM on September 16, 2003

"Well, the simple fact is that Stephen King is not an 'author' at all."

Bullshit. He writes books, he sells books, he's an author. Snobbery about the genre in which he writes says more about the narrowness of your personal esthetic than it does about King's skill as a writer.

In any event, there is as much excellent writing in "genre" as there is in literay fiction. China Mieville (as an example) writes as well as anyone, he just happens to write fantasy. For another example, Dan Simmons.
posted by jscalzi at 3:57 PM on September 16, 2003

I see most of the criticism of Stephen King as posturing, because he writes in the horror genre instead of something more "serious" and because he appeals to such a wide audience and is, therefore, "common".

I find that, if you can accept a few basic premises when you start reading his books, you can almost believe that the story could actually happen the way the book unfolds. For example, in The Stand (my recommendation by the way, _sirmissalot_) can anyone really doubt that the American government/military would not react to the accidental release of a biological agent by completely denying that it had happened and doing whatever it took to hide it?
posted by dg at 4:01 PM on September 16, 2003

kaibutsu, King cannot be seen as literature in the same sense that we think about Don DeLillo or Paul Auster. There's no discernible style in writers like Stephen King. The distinction is subtle only as far their occupation goes, but not if your consider their respective works. I have read King in the past, but it's something that pleases you on a very superficial level.

What century are you living in, the 50s? Come on, all writers write in a genre of some variety.

Hildegarde, how would you define Thomas Pynchon's "genre" then? What about David Foster Wallace? W. G. Sebald? King clearly aims for a certain effect over certain readers within certain accepted, well-trodden standards. He's a storyteller. Only in a world where the average public has descended into the very depths of ignorance could Stephen King's name even enter a discussion about literature.
posted by 111 at 4:02 PM on September 16, 2003

"King clearly aims for a certain effect over certain readers within certain accepted, well-trodden standards. He's a storyteller."

Like, say, Dostoevsky, who wrote Crime & Punishment as a magazine serial. Or, say, Dickens, who wrote many of his novels the same way.

"Storytelling" does not preclude literature. Storytelling is the foundation of literature. Authors who are not storytellers are, in a word, wanking.
posted by jscalzi at 4:25 PM on September 16, 2003

"Storytelling" does not preclude literature.

It sure doesn't, being a necessary but not sufficient element. Dostoevsky had so much more levels to approach and areas to illuminate beyond

(spoilers ahead)

"Raskolnikov kills two spinsters" that the narrative itself becomes, as it should in all great works, a canvas. The way Marmeladov tells us how his daughter had to prostitute herself to bring home 30 rubles is more important, multilayered and sublime and than Stephen King's entire opus.
posted by 111 at 4:50 PM on September 16, 2003

Jeez there are some literary snobs around here ...
posted by Orb at 5:04 PM on September 16, 2003

Harold Bloom is a jealous windbag who needs to climb out of Shakespeare's decaying ass"

I'm not revolted by King's prose like some here are (plus I think that there is nothing bad in competently written popular fiction -- I remind David Foster Wallace's MeFi fans that he has a very high opinion of the early Tom Clancy books) but, frankly I think that there's still a lot of interesting stuff inside of Shakespeare's decaying ass
posted by matteo at 5:11 PM on September 16, 2003

I'm just amazed it took "levels" so long to come up.
posted by squealy at 5:13 PM on September 16, 2003

more important, multilayered and sublime and than Stephen King's entire opus

And how much of that opus have you read, 111? What's your favorite detail of King's writing? Your least favorite?

King has produced some festering piles of shit. He has produced some entertaining novels and breathed life into some memorable characters. When he's on his game, he's awesome. Further, his how-to book, On Writing is truly inspiring and one of the first books I turn to when my own writing needs a goose in the ass.

King doesn't pretend to produce high-falutin' literature, but neither did Charles Dickens. They were both products of their times, producing populist tales that appealed to broad audiences, had gripping plots, and introduced memorable characters. I think there's a very strong parallel between the two authors, and I like them both, though I don't like everything that they've written.

There's nothing wrong with liking both Stephen King and the high-falutin' literary authors. In fact, it's healthy. But I'd rather read Stephen King than Wallace Stegner any day.
posted by jdroth at 5:15 PM on September 16, 2003

Scarabic... Roth mostly writes about masturbation?!

and mutual masturbation.

Ok, Dobbs. It was hyperbole. But not complete bullshit. I'm just saying that if we're going to dis King based on subject matter, we better take a close look at the group of people that were held up in the FPP as examples.

Roth certainly does write some bawdy stuff, including his Pulitzer-winning Sabbath's Theater, which, if I recall, features a scene where a 70-ish man lies down on his dead lover's grave and wanks in her memorial. If we're down with that, I don't see why we can't see through a horror genre label to good writing (when it's there).

Don't get me wrong. I loves da Roth.
posted by scarabic at 5:29 PM on September 16, 2003

"The way Marmeladov tells us how his daughter had to prostitute herself to bring home 30 rubles is more important, multilayered and sublime and than Stephen King's entire opus."

Which opus? Or do you mean canon?

Also, eh. Dostoevsky was paid by the installment and it behooved him to stretch the story by any means necessary (he had debts). So while not disagreeing with the skill he had spinning his tale, which was considerable, the mechanics of his story are on display. This is also why I suspect the book has such an abrupt ending; some editor was telling him to wrap it up.

This is, among other reasons, why it's not necessarily a smart thing to automatically assume today's popular beach novel won't be tomorrow's classic. Or more to the point, today's beach novel author isn't capable of a novel that will be regarded as a classic in the future. All it takes is one PhD candidate who convincingly argues the parallels between King's use of fantasy/horror in contemporary America and South America's tradition of magical realism in literature for his reputation to become entirely rehabilitated.

Ironically, I think one person who would agree with you in your estimation of King's talents would be King, who has steadfastly maintained that he is the McDonalds of the literary world and would not presume to art.

However, without making the argument that King's work is literature on the level of Bellow, et al, I do think King's facility with storytelling is of significant quality that he can be considered a creator of literature, for however much horror that idea provides you (or him, for that matter).
posted by jscalzi at 5:34 PM on September 16, 2003

jdroth, SK books I read:
-Shining (his best), Girl who Loved Tom Gordon, Dead Zone, Cujo, On Writing, Christine, Firestarter, Pet Sematary, Night Shift, Salem's Lot and that prison novella about the guy etc etc (Morgan Freeman movie). You see he lost me at some point-- except fot the Girl who Loved Tom Gordon, which seems to be a later book.

Any recommendations?

My favorite SK trick is the painstaking, massive description of quotidian details against hints of something evil approaching (i.e., the same thing most horror writers have been done for the last few centuries). I also like the way he used to focus the tension in his novels-- you keep reading out of curiosity for the impending catastrophic turning point and the quick succession of horrors that follows it. Again, nothing very original, but readable. It goes without saying King's too mushy sometimes and has pedestrian style.

Since he's been mentioned before, let me tell you Charles Dickens is a mediocre writer too ("It was the best of times/it was the worst of times" ranking as a serious Bulwer-Lytton in my opinion).

As reader of a King, Rex Stout, Agatha Christie et al, let me tell you I can appreciate light entertainment, but Northrop Frye's "catholicity of taste" can only go so far. After you read Shakespeare, Marcel Proust and James Joyce, absolutely everything else is second rate literature.
posted by 111 at 5:41 PM on September 16, 2003

After you read Shakespeare, Marcel Proust and James Joyce, absolutely everything else is second rate literature.

By which you mean that after you read Shakespeare, Proust and Joyce, everything else was second-rate literature to you. Right, 111? 'Cause I've read two out of those three - a pretty catholic little trinity there, incidentally - and yet I continue to find first-rate literature in all kinds of other books that I read.

Or is it kind of like those stones in Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom - the power residing only in all three together - and so once I've made my way through Remembrance of Things Past, it will begin to emit a light from within the moment I close the back cover, and then my copies of Joyce and Shakespeare will all start to glow too and together they'll form a holy fire of Literature so pure and unassailable that all the other stuff on my bookshelf that I thought was really good writing will burst into flames and be incinerated? Is that how it goes down?

Because, frankly, that would be totally cool.
posted by gompa at 5:54 PM on September 16, 2003 [2 favorites]

King? The man's a writing machine and a master of characterization. I respect the helloutta him.
posted by Shane at 6:25 PM on September 16, 2003 [1 favorite]

After you read Shakespeare, Marcel Proust and James Joyce, absolutely everything else is second rate literature.

I've read most of Shakespeare except for a couple of the problem plays, once took ten weeks off from graduate school to read the entirety of In Search of Lost Time (since it was going to be the only time in my life I'd be able to do it), and wrote a dissertation that was, in part, on Joyce's Ulysses (the other chapters were on William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon). And I still think that Hearts in Atlantis is the best new novel I read during the year of its publication, and could hold up against anything on the shelves, "literary" or no. It's stylistically amazing, and the idea of examining the influence of the Vietnam War on America by looking through the eyes of characters who all dodged the draft (instead of the typical approach of depicting soldiers "in country") was pure genius. And it does a pretty good job of ripping off Faulkner's Go Down Moses and The Sound and the Fury in its narrative structure.

I certainly can't say that all King novels I've read are that good, and if I were handing out an NBA King wouldn't be my first choice, but Hearts in Atlantis is an impressive book--I wish I'd written it.
posted by Prospero at 6:31 PM on September 16, 2003

While I think Bloom's comments above were totally unnecessary and condescending, I don't see why people should be offended at the notion that what stephen king writes is entertainment as opposed to art. I mean, I've never read it myself (at least, I don't remember ever reading anything of his) but that's what it's always presented as, and the movies of his books are certainly entertainment as opposed to art...

I would give it a closer look if I'd ever been given reason to think it would appeal to me; as it is, there's plenty else on my to-read list that trumps king. I don't look down on it, though, and don't see a problem with giving him a lifetime achievement award, although, again, having not actually read his work, perhaps if it's near as bad as bloom makes it out to be, I'd feel differently...

some authors stand on the art/entertainment line a bit - I would vote John Irving as a storyteller more than a writer, and though I've found him fun, I don't think of him as someone who has had any kind of real influence on me. Dickens also seems a little one-dimensional to me. They're not bad authors, and keeping a reader entertained is surely a skill, but there's a feeling you get when you read something really brilliant, a kind of a thrill at what the writer managed to evoke, that just doesn't happen with airplane / beach reading, in my (admittedly limited - sci fi, anne rice in HS, and some historical detective novels my dad gave me) experience.
posted by mdn at 6:47 PM on September 16, 2003

"The way Marmeladov tells us how his daughter had to prostitute herself to bring home 30 rubles is more important, multilayered and sublime and than Stephen King's entire opus."

Which opus? Or do you mean canon?

he means "oeuvre"
posted by scarabic at 7:09 PM on September 16, 2003

Since he's been mentioned before, let me tell you Charles Dickens is a mediocre writer too ("It was the best of times/it was the worst of times" ranking as a serious Bulwer-Lytton in my opinion).

And on occasion I suppose William Wordsworth sounds like Henry James Pye, but Dickens' prose style rarely sounds anything
like Bulwer-Lytton's. Here's the opening paragraph of one of Bulwer-Lytton's better historical novels, Harold, the Last of the Saxon Kings:

Merry was the month of May in the year of our Lord 1052. Few were the boys, and few the lasses, who overslept themselves on the first of that buxom month. Long ere the dawn, the crowds had sought mead and woodland, to cut poles and wreathe flowers. Many a mead then lay fair and green beyond the village of Charing, and behind the isle of Thorney, (amidst the brakes and briars of which were then rising fast and fair the Hall and Abbey of Westminster;) many a wood lay dark in the starlight, along the higher ground that sloped from the dank strand, with its numerous canals or dykes;--and on either side of the great road into Kent:--flutes and horns sounded far and near through the green places, and laughter of song, and the crash of breaking boughs.

And here's the opening paragraph of Dickens' Bleak House:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln's Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn-hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes--gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another's umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

The only thing remotely interesting about Bulwer-Lytton's paragraph is its overuse of alliteration, and that's interesting in the sense of "annoying." As Alexander Pope would say, there's no relationship between sound and sense here. B-L similarly abuses inversions in an attempt to produce faux "antique" prose. Otherwise, the paragraph evokes a stock pastoral landscape. By contrast, Dickens manages to evoke most of his novel's main themes in the space of the first few sentences: the ominous presence of Chancery; the extent to which the city smothers its inhabitants; the obsession with money ("compound interest," which comes back later on). Dickens' use of accumulation actually has a point here, used as it is to evoke both the crush of London's inhabitants and the deindividuating effect of the fog. One could go on about the paratactic style, but one won't.

In fact, B-L's style is not all that unusual; it's a mediocre example of florid early-to-mid-century prose.* (What makes his work stand out is usually not the style, but rather the bonkers and jury-rigged philosophical content.) If anything, he's rather better than competitors like W. H. Ainsworth or G.P.R. James, since B-L's sentences normally have the courtesy to parse. (If you want a list of really low-mediocre-to-rotten Victorian novelists, I'd be happy to oblige.) Most people would be unable to tell B-L's sentences apart from that of any equivalent writer of the time, whereas Dickens' prose "footprint" is as unique as that of Emily and Charlotte Bronte (not Anne, so much) or George Eliot.

*Although his short story "The Haunted and the Haunters" is worth reading, and one of his plays, Money, can still be produced successfully--it's one of the few pre-Wilde and Shaw Victorian dramas that remains watchable today.

As for the genre issue: most purportedly "non-genre" novelists stand out because they transform (and sometimes parody) "genre" categories. Hence the Brontes and the Gothic, George Eliot and the sensation novel (in Daniel Deronda, which is also a brilliant satire on the evangelical conversion novel), Dickens and the historical novel, and so forth. Novelistic genres are notoriously protean. Heck, you even have social-problem sensation fiction. (And some genre novelists are absolutely central to "non-genre" fiction--Sir Walter Scott being the supreme example.)

As for King: yes, I think he's McDonald's, although Different Seasons is quite good, as is Carrie (fine use of horror to represent adolescent angst). The other work didn't strike me as particularly innovative, although it was certainly effective. Haven't read any of his recent stuff, though.

(Oh, dear. I went off in lecture mode there. Sorry about that.)
posted by thomas j wise at 7:14 PM on September 16, 2003 [2 favorites]

"After you read Shakespeare, Marcel Proust and James Joyce, absolutely everything else is second rate literature."

(rolls eyes)

Stupid me for not recognizing a troll earlier than this.
posted by jscalzi at 7:15 PM on September 16, 2003

After you read Shakespeare, Marcel Proust and James Joyce, absolutely everything else is second rate literature.

Read 'em, loved 'em, got the As. And I don't essentialize the whole of literature into a top-down horserace.

I find the "rating" of works of art to be a pointless pursuit, much beloved by those who lack creativity and seek something prestigious to hang their intellectual hat on.

We're talking a lot about Stephen King's quality here, but not at all about the quality of the prize. It's not as if the bestowal of the prize equates with any kind of end-all, be-all, "this is what literature IS" kind of rubric.

The National Book Award committee may consider this a bold move toward redefining what their accolade represents, a move toward populism, or, more likely, a nod in its direction.
posted by scarabic at 7:16 PM on September 16, 2003

Hildegarde, how would you define Thomas Pynchon's "genre" then?

Well, the Science Fiction Writers of America defined Gravity's Rainbow as science fiction and nominated it for their Best Novel award in 1973.
posted by snarkout at 7:39 PM on September 16, 2003

in an interview, bastard out of carolina author dorothy allison said stephen king was "a working-class realist writing in a genre that doesn't get much respect" and as a result, he was one of the few writers getting the money he was worth. (i'm quoting this from memory, hope i didnt bastardize the quote.) i liked carrie and haven't kept up with his career since then (horror is not a genre i particularly enjoy), so i don't quite know the accuracy of this quote. on the other hand, i am curious as to what mefites think of this idea and how it relates to the award, etc.

/english teacher mode
posted by pxe2000 at 8:31 PM on September 16, 2003

After you read Marmaduke, everything else is second rate literature.

He's a really big dog.
posted by Samsonov14 at 9:06 PM on September 16, 2003

I was going to come on and post "Cue debate on high art versus low art" but it appears I am too late. I'll guess I will go back to reading that Raymond Williams essay for my theory class.
posted by synecdoche at 9:36 PM on September 16, 2003

Oops... I mean "I guess I will go back..."

Just before anybody else gets the chance. :)
posted by synecdoche at 9:40 PM on September 16, 2003

111, I haven't much time (the wife and I are in the midst of a Six Feet Under marathon thanks to Netflix, and taking a between-episode break), but here are some quick points:
  • Yes, Proust rocks. It's unfair to compare King to Proust, though. Comparing anyone to Proust would yield a similar result.
  • See, I like my comparison of King to Dickens. You're right: Dickens produced some dreck. But he produced some brilliant work, too. King and Dickens are uneven, but great. (As Thomas Wise rightly points out a few messages back, Bleak House is great, great stuff.)
  • As for the King books you've read: you've read several, most of them bad. You seem to have hit the crap, so I do not begrudge you your opinion. From what you've read, it's a very valid opinion to hold! :)
Okay, now back to Fisher and Sons...
posted by jdroth at 10:03 PM on September 16, 2003

King's first nonfiction work, Danse Macabre, on the nature of fear and a sort of early draft of On Writing, gives a nice peek into the insight that goes into his writing. I'd personally rate the best of his work against almost anything by that interminable bore Dickens, and as for the troika? Shakespeare, yes; Proust, don't know; Joyce? WILDLY overrated. Reading Ulysses is like doing mental yoga - it hurts, it's awkward, and even though everyone tells you it'll make you a better person for it, you just end up feel like you've wasted a bunch of time adn that somewhere people are laughing at you for being such a gullible dope.
posted by UncleFes at 10:38 PM on September 16, 2003

Any recommendations?


For my money, Stephen King's short stories and earlier novels are all pretty good, and he lost me with Tommyknockers. Too many gratuitous head explosions. I know he's written some good stuff since, but for me that was the last straw.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:06 PM on September 16, 2003

Too many gratuitous head explosions.

No head explosion is ever gratuitous.

All of them, and more, are necessary and proper to whatever the hell the plot is.

The world would be well-served if more works (Friends, or maybe Touched By An Angel In My Secret Places or ``Goofus and Gallant'') had exploding heads from time to time.

Also, while they're no Stephen King, Preston and Child's Mount Dragon is also fantabulous, since it features a virus that makes your head explode into the faceplate of your isolation suit.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:49 PM on September 16, 2003 [1 favorite]

111: The Tommyknockers. oh, and disregard any similarly titled and authored shit you may have been subjected to on television.
posted by quonsar at 11:49 PM on September 16, 2003

And nothing says "fine literature" more than delicious braaaaaaaiiiiiiins.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:50 PM on September 16, 2003

he lost me with Tommyknockers. Too many gratuitous head explosions.

gah! who could forget the image of the outline of the deputy stamped into the flying assaultive soda machine?

and the hangover scenes on the beach!

the single-minded compulsion of whatserface to uncover the whoosis while tentacles sprout from her nethers?

well, maybe a little over the top. but i've always loved kings flirtations with the little green men.
posted by quonsar at 11:54 PM on September 16, 2003

As has been pointed out, it's very easy not to see what's good about Stephen King if all you read is the least of his work, and allow your opinion to be based on that and his popularity (and the fact that he's accessible to a very wide spectrum of people). His ability to place the reader in the story, his ability to build suspense (even though it's often formulaic, it still works time and time again), and the clever layering and symbolism his best work displays are all things which combine in his best work to lift it well above the "McDonald's" level (which I find an unfair label, since to me, even when he's not good, he's still reliably entertaining, which is more than I can say for McDonald's). I firmly believe that pretty well anyone and everyone can find at least one King work that they really enjoy and appreciate, regardless of the genre they prefer, and regardless of how much more highly developed than most they consider their literary tastes.

Any recommendations?

The novella collections Four Past Midnight and Different Seasons, and the short story collections are always good bets (the newest one, Everything's Eventual, has quite a few good stories). For novels, Pet Sematary, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Hearts in Atlantis and The Shining. And From a Buick 8 has some really wonderful writing even if it does sputter toward the end.
posted by biscotti at 12:14 AM on September 17, 2003

People read books for different reasons. Some read books to be excited. Some read books to be scared. Some read books to appreciate the complexity and beauty that can be expressed in language by those with the talent to pull it off. People who read Stephen King books, for the most part, expect to be scared. His Dark Tower series focuses more on telling an excitnig story and on developing a complex fictional realm which is tied to many of his other tales. Because of that, those who are interested in "higher" literature may want to explore the Dark Tower series. Those who just want to be scared should read It, which, in my opinion, pretty much defines the horror genre.

Some of his books are not as scary as they should be, have shoddy plot development, use awkward metaphors or are anticlimactic. I personally disliked Salem's Lot (I generally find vampire stories silly), Christine (cars simply are not scary), most of his short stories (there are some good ones, including, of course, Different Seasons) and most of his earlier works. But these things can hardly be established objectively. People who are afraid of dogs already may find Cujo to be their worst nightmare. People familiar with the whole high school bullying might be scared of Carrie. People who have fond memories of clownhood experiences might find It difficult to stomach.

Similarly, those who simply find life already exciting enough and do not want to be scared but instead read literature to relax and appreciate beauty, to discover new insights or to learn will not want to choose Stephen King. But to say that the man is an incompetent writer is unfair -- if he was, why do millions of people keep buying this books? Are they all stupid sheep who do what the mass media tell them, following every hype that gets promoted on a large enough scale? (Don't answer that.) I think King gives a lot of people exactly what they expect, and even though some of his work definitely lacked in quality, he is an unusually reliable writer. That's why people keep coming back to him.
posted by Eloquence at 12:41 AM on September 17, 2003

I think that the most important and rewarding things in life generally require quite a bit of effort, whether it be your family, romantic relationships, literature, art, etc. Joyce's later work is difficult yes, and I guess for many pointless, but if you are willing to invest the effort in it you will be rewarded again and again. The same goes for Faulkner, Shakespeare, Borges, Kafka, Vollman and many others. You can return again and again to their work because as your perspective as a reader changes with time the work will yield new treasures. That is why it is considered literature.

On the other hand, things that come easy often don't keep you satisfied for very long. It's interesting that King compares himself to fast food, because fast food, as with most things in high consumption society, falls in the category of immediate gratification that never quite succeeds in satisfying desire and yet leaves you wanting more (this is by design, because the idea is to leave us wanting to buy more). When I was an adolescent I read many King novels (as well as fantasy, science fiction, mythology). They were such compelling reads, the kind of book that you could read in a single night. But I think the only one I ever reread when I was older was Different Seasons. What would be the point? The majority of his books are potboilers. It may be fascinating to watch, but once the water spills over there really isn't anything else to see. But reading them did spark my nascent love of reading, which in turn lead me later in life to seek out great Literature that would end up transforming me.

That is why to me Stephen King is a valid writer.

posted by sic at 3:05 AM on September 17, 2003

"No one in this world, so far as I know--and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me--has ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people."

       H. L. Mencken
posted by signal at 6:05 AM on September 17, 2003

As much as I love Mencken (I own the domain -- stand back, y'all), can we posit a collorary to Godwin's law that states whenever that particular quote of Mencken's is tossed into an online conversation, that conversation is officially over?
posted by jscalzi at 6:35 AM on September 17, 2003

There's room on my shelf for Pynchon, Borges, Eco, DFW, and King. The man's not literary, he has no pretensions of being literary, and he's always said as much. What he can do is tell a damn fine story. And if one of his stories got someone to pick up a book when they would not have otherwise done so, then his existence is 100% justified.
Also, anyone who hasn't read him should start with Misery.
posted by darukaru at 6:55 AM on September 17, 2003

can we posit a collorary to Godwin's law that states whenever that particular quote of Mencken's is tossed into an online conversation, that conversation is officially over?

posted by sennoma at 7:46 AM on September 17, 2003

While the Tommyknockers was pretty much crap, I've always had a special place for it in my heart because it features the invention of the psychic typewriter, which King obviously was yearning for at about that point in the mangled story. It almost becomes self-satire, and if you read it that way, it's pretty entertaining.

Aside from that, King is a fine entertainer who has written some truly good literature, and some truly awful pulp. I think his short stories and novellas are his best work. He seems to do better when under severe length constraint, while the novels tend to balloon out to a zillion words and go all flaccid. You can almost judge the quality of a King book in advance by page count, with the notable exceptions
of The Stand (long but good) and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (short but bad).

And contrary to the opinions of some other comments here, I just read the third book of the Gunslinger, and it's just bad. I remember the first two being pretty good, but I read them in high school so who knows. The third one just can't be read with a straight face if you've ever read any Terry Pratchett. Pratchett has so thoroughly satired the stock fantasy ground that King is trying to tread that your brain will just fill in the jokes for you.
posted by rusty at 8:30 AM on September 17, 2003

can we posit a collorary to Godwin's law that states whenever that particular quote of Mencken's is tossed into an online conversation, that conversation is officially over?

That's what Hitler said, you damn dirty Nazi.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:40 AM on September 17, 2003

can we posit a collorary to Godwin's law that states whenever that particular quote of Mencken's is tossed into an online conversation, that conversation is officially over? No fair declaring the thread shark-jumped so soon. Book threads always generate new leads for what to read.

What ZachsMind said. King is uncommonly good at storytelling. I don't think his writing is bad, but it certainly doesn't fit the HALT (High Art in the Literary Tradition) profile. Like Poe and Dickens, I think his work will last a lot longer than the work of many of the New York Literary Mafia, including Jonathan Franzen.

Unlike ZM, I'd rather read Wallace Stegner than Stephen King. Sadly, Stegner's output is rather lower than King's.
posted by theora55 at 8:51 AM on September 17, 2003

The guy can tell a hell of a story, hands down. If you can get past the plain prose and stock characters - which are light years beyond some of the utter crap that also sells tons nowadays, like (for example) The Da Vinci Code - you can't put many of his books down. When's the last time you heard someone say that about Joyce?

Sure, it's not so high-brow. I notice how many people here say they read the most King when they were younger, as I did. Hell, the man himself called his writing "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries." Still food, and satisfying to many.

He may not be to your "refined" taste, but King is still a very good writer. "Not literature"? Please. That's as stupid as making a special section in the bookstore for complicated, boring stuff by dead people. It's all writing. Period.

(And I agree, the Bachman Books and Dark Tower series are probably his best.)
posted by gottabefunky at 8:52 AM on September 17, 2003

Late to the thread! Full disclosure-- I went to the same K-8 school as did King (20 years later) and the hero-worship of him in my hometown is as pronounced as you would expect in a community of 2000 that hasn't anything else to distinguish it.

King's works are mostly disregarded because they're accessible. I'm all for dense, multilayered works that one has to chew on and occasionally struggle with (Ulysses is my favorite novel), but I can appreciate a well-crafted narrative. I haven't read much King (four books by my count) because most of the subject matter doesn't interest me, but everything I've ever read has impressed me with how digestible it was while feeling absorbing and without feeling patronizing to the reader.

"Art" is a subjective term, but the man clearly has a lot of talent and applies it well. I'm not going to be able to convince his detractors of this, but they secretly dislike him because high-school students and bus drivers can read King's books. Maybe those critics should instead tell themselves that dirty plebes can't appreciate his novels on the same level as the literary elite instead of dismissing a talented author outright.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:54 AM on September 17, 2003

Personally, I found Insomnia to be a very good example of the best King has to offer.
posted by cohappy at 10:34 AM on September 17, 2003

Thanks everybody for the recommendations of other books by King. Actually, I didn't read On Writing but the earlier Danse Macabre, which really is interesting and occasionally insightful (as when he draws attention to the subtle differences in the faces of a young person and a slightly older adult etc etc), but it's still pretty run of the mill when you compare it to what, say, George Orwell's essays or something equally unpretentious.

I find the "rating" of works of art to be a pointless pursuit,

scarabic, I disagree entirely, because time is short and the canon (as opposed to the opus, which is the uncritical collection of a given writer's/period/genre writing) should not be polluted by 2nd rate stuff. Literature is style and depth; excess of description and superficiality offend your soul and insult your intelligence.

Now that's an entirely subjective choice. I wouldn't oppose King getting awards for selling books and helping illiterate children, but I wouldn't consider it intellectually honest to say that a book is a book and all writers are the same etc etc.

As a final reminder, I'd like to mention that well-written books can be entertaining and popular as well, such as Donna Tartt's Secret History etc.
posted by 111 at 11:46 AM on September 17, 2003

Perhaps if we don't like an author or book, we should approach it with curiosity instead of distain. After all, if he's so well loved, and you don't like him, could the problem lie with your perception? Maybe you've overlooked something? Or are being too narrow-minded?

It's so Modernist to think good literature has to fit into your own definitions. Heaven forbid letting an unwashed plebeian have access to the same enjoyment you have.
posted by Dantien at 1:31 PM on September 17, 2003

I disagree entirely, because time is short...

I dunno, man.... That seems a lot like the surgeon always doing heart surgery regardless of the problem, because, well, heart surgery is the BEST, while appendenectomy is an operation that any second rate loser could do. I choose my books based on where my interests are at the moment, and then do a bit of browsing.

As for the soul, I'm pretty sure it's a lie propogated by the state, and therefore hard to offend. As for intelligence, I don't see how honesty can ever be an insult to it. In that light, King is an insult to no one's intelligence, since his writing is generally as honest as it comes.
posted by kaibutsu at 1:45 PM on September 17, 2003

As far as technique goes, King's got a lot to teach young writers, who frequently abandon the reader's needs for grounding, detail, and continuity. He never drops the camera, never reveals himself, never substitutes a comment for an image.
Ain't that the truth. And the first paragraph of Bleak House, posted later, illustrates why good writing is characterized by grounding, detail, and image over comment.
posted by Holden at 2:00 PM on September 17, 2003

I'm too tired right now to get into a literary discussion, but I just thought of this.
posted by nath at 2:09 PM on September 17, 2003

It's so Modernist to think good literature has to fit into your own definitions.

And to say that all art is equal is post-modernist. You're just a step away from existentialism and an eternity of not existing.

But now for something spectacular. For the first time, ever, I agree with something written by 111. Time is short for us, and a lot of what is considered literature these days is really a good waste of time. I see the main benefit to one's self derived from reading as the uptake of new thoughts, or different ways of thinking about things, and if nothing like that is gleaned from a book, what is the point of reading it? I've got plenty of other ways to entertain myself, but when i want to expand sphere of thought, I know where to look.
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand at 10:34 PM on September 17, 2003

What is the great purpose behind reading something for new thoughts? Allow me to stand up for reading mindless drivel from time to time. Placing imaginary values upon one book vs. another is all well and good (I do it to music), but to read "quality" because someday you may die assumes a number of things, one of which being that the value you place upon a work is "true". All human values are self-imposed and not necessarily true. So why not read mindless drivel? Why not take a break from Pynchon to read King? You can't take it with you after all!

The purpose of reading, imho, is enjoyment. Regardless of purported quality, or what my lit teacher tells me, I will read what catches my fancy. And I wont avoid a good page-turner just because it is popular or superficial or not a recipient of some literary award.

Just enjoy reading and let's all not be such snobs about it!
posted by Dantien at 6:58 AM on September 18, 2003

Nobody is suggesting that you have to read Literature or that you shouldn't read King. The debate at hand is whether or not King's work is Literature.

It is not.

And what 111 suggests is that we shouldn't muddy the canon with non-literature simply because a writer sells a lot of books or because they are easily adapted into movies. We already have the Grammies. King has earned his place in the world and I am convinced that, save perhaps that one novel that I haven't read (somebody called it a classic great American novel), his place is pure entertainment. I am also convinced that there is nothing wrong with that.

But don't compare him to Joyce or Pynchon or Shakespeare. It's unfair to them and it's unfair to him.
posted by sic at 12:54 PM on September 18, 2003

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