The King of No-brow?

|

I'm a little late with this, but has anyone caught the controversy over Stephen King's National Book Foundation medal for distinguished contribution to American letters—the latest in the other culture wars? (Highbrow vs lowbrow, Jonathan Franzen vs Oprah, etc.) To some literati, the award is another breakthrough for the barbarians at the gate. I will admit that unlike many of my fellow Reason-ers, I am rather sympathetic to "traditional" hierarchies of cultural value and to the notion of artistic excellence that transcends market success. But the intellectuals' hand-wringing on this occasion does not generate much sympathy. In an interview with the Boston Globe, Croatian emigre Dubravka Ugresic compares the tyranny of the literary marketplace to that of Stalinist socialist realism, to which she deems King to be a modern Western heir. (Shouldn't expats from ex-Communist countries know better?) Meanwhile, in the Nov. 24 Time, another ex-Eastern European, Lev Grossman, should have the last word when he declares, "Books aren't high or low. They're just good or bad." Since Grossman's brief, cogent essay is no longer available online for free, here's the excerpt that sums up the main idea:

How did America's reading habits become so radically polarized, so prissily puritanical, that at best a quarter of what people read (or at least what they buy) qualifies as legitimate literature? It hasn't always been like this. As recently as the mid–19th century, historians of the novel tell us, there was only one heap. Dickens wrote best-selling novels, but they weren't considered 'commercial' or 'popular' or 'your-euphemism-here.' They were just novels. No one looked down on Scott and Tennyson and Stowe for being wildly successful. No one got all embarrassed when they were caught reading the new Edgar Allan Poe over lunch.

But by the time modernism kicked in, in the early part of the 20th century, things had changed. The year 1922 saw the publication of both T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land and James Joyce's Ulysses, two of the greatest literary works in Western history, but also two of the first that are impossible to understand without (and, arguably, with) compendious footnotes and critical apparatuses. All of a sudden you knew something was literary because it was difficult. You either got it or you didn't, and if you didn't, you didn't admit it. As much as Americans like to be democratic in our politics, we have become aristocratic in our aesthetics.

This was something strange and new. Reading literature and having a damn good time had become quietly but decidedly uncoupled. And yet we think of this state of affairs as normal, and it has left us with a set of perverse biases that persist to this day. We have a high tolerance for boredom and difficulty. We praise rich, complex, lyrical prose, but we don't really appreciate the pleasures of a well-paced, gracefully structured plot. Or, worse, we appreciate them, but we are embarrassed about it. 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. I'm sure some psychiatrist somewhere has a name for associating pleasure with shame, but I think we can all agree that it's a little sick.

Hear, hear. Of course, it should be noted that a lot of popular 19th Century literature was (justly forgotten) junk. Popularity is not, in my view, proof of excellence; but is shouldn't be a mark of shame, either.

NEXT: "We're Going to Break Up Giant Media Enterprises"

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Interesting post. Sadly, this’ll be the first comment on it. I do have this strange sense that if I’m going to read a book, it’d better be deep and edifying and complex. But maybe this makes sense for our modern society… if you’re going to dive into some pointless entertainment, movies and music seem like far better options than books. More entertainment bang for your time, I think.

    Perhaps a counterexample to the “Reading literature and having a damn good time had become quietly but decidedly uncoupled” is the Harry Potter phenomenon. Lots of adults are reading these childishly entertaining books and don’t seem to be ashamed of it at all. And I hope I don’t offend anyone, but I think that the Lord of the Rings books work as counterexamples too.

    Anyway, doesn’t it make sense that entertaining “junk novels” will be less popular due to the proliferation of entertaining “junk TV” and “junk movies”?

  2. Too many goddamn English majors, that’s the problem.

  3. I’m with you, dhex. I reread Ulysses a couple weeks ago, for the first time in about a decade, and what was really striking was how old-fashioned it seemed. Anybody who pretends to be baffled by the techniques at this point, after they’ve been used by everybody under the sun (hell, even the King of Horror uses internal monologue at times), is just being obtuse for the hell of it.

  4. I caught King’s acceptance speech on CSPAN. While I have no patience for the horror genre. I’ve always felt King was uniquely able to write dialog that sounds like people actually talk. I really liked his speech. He spoke of his early struggle to succeed as a writer. (He credits his wife’s faith and devotion.) He used the phrase “finding the truth within the lie” to describe his writing philosophy. And he ended by calling for a general embracing of popular authors by the highbrow community.

  5. I caught King’s acceptance speech on CSPAN. While I have no patience for the horror genre. I’ve always felt King was uniquely able to write dialog that sounds like people actually talk. I really liked his speech. He spoke of his early struggle to succeed as a writer. (He credits his wife’s faith and devotion.) He used the phrase “finding the truth within the lie” to describe his writing philosophy. And he ended by calling for a general embracing of popular authors by the highbrow community.

  6. am i the only person on earth who thinks ulysses is merely long, not difficult?

    finnegans wake is difficult. 🙂

  7. “As recently as the mid–19th century, historians of the novel tell us, there was only one heap. Dickens wrote best-selling novels, but they weren’t considered ‘commercial’ or ‘popular’ or ‘your-euphemism-here.’ ”

    But even then there was such a thing as a “penny dreadful”.

  8. I think it’s misleading to put all popular writers in the same “lowbrow” category. Steven King makes no bones about his work being plot-driven and aimed at a mass audience. But given the genre requirements, there are still standards of quality that some writers meet and others do not. I admit to enjoying King’s books, with no guilt whatsoever. He certainly doesn’t deserved to be lumped in with, say, Harold Robbins and Diane Steele.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.