Long Live the King

  • At a Marriott Hotel in New York City this week, the National Book Foundation plans to hand Stephen King its Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Previous recipients of the medal include Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Arthur Miller and Toni Morrison, which makes King, an unrepentant horror monger, a controversial choice, to say the least. Shakespeare scholar and self-appointed canonmaker Harold Bloom called it a "terrible mistake" and added that King was an "immensely inadequate writer."

    News of King's crowning met with predictable sneers from the literary snobs, along with a few weak and equally predictable cheers from the reverse snobs. But both sides are kind of missing the point, which is that we — that is, we readers — have an odd and deeply ingrained habit of dividing books into two mutually exclusive heaps, one high and literary and one low and trashy, and we should stop it. Books aren't high or low. They're just good or bad.

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    Take a look at that second heap, the trashy one, and you'll notice something interesting: it's very, very large. Ipsos BookTrends is a service that tracks consumer book purchases — numbers that, unlike sales figures for albums or movie tickets, are rarely seen outside the industry. According to Ipsos, 34% of all novels sold in the U.S. this year were romance novels. Six percent were fantasy and science fiction, and 19% were mysteries and thrillers. Only 25% fell under "general fiction," the category that includes the even smaller subdivision of literary novels: your Jonathan Franzens, your David Foster Wallaces, your E. Annie Proulxs. Statistically speaking, the literary novel is a small part of a very big picture.

    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.

    As it happens, I don't much care for Stephen King's books. Maybe I'm out of touch with my dark side, but I'd swap his oeuvre for J.K. Rowling's in a magic moment, or George R.R. Martin's for that matter. But I applaud the National Book Foundation's choice, and I hope it encourages the small but determined school of writers who are carefully, lovingly grafting the prose craft of the literary heap onto the sinewy, satisfying plots of the trashy one to produce hybrid novels that offer the pleasures of both. Writers like Donna Tartt and Alice Sebold, Neal Stephenson and Iain Banks, Jonathan Lethem and Margaret Atwood, writers whose work will most likely define — more than anything by brilliant mandarins like Wallace or Franzen — what will be known to later generations as the 21st century novel. The next literary wave will come not from above but from below, from the foil-covered, embossed-lettered paperbacks in the drugstore racks. Stay tuned. Keep reading. The revolution will not be canonized.