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.