I occasionally like Stephen King the writer, and really do like Stephen King the philanthropist, but Stephen King the literary critic is really starting to piss me off.
Every single time he gets a chance to address his more literate readers all he can offer is some defensive populist anti-snob snobbery that says nothing about what a piece of fiction can be called upon to achieve, but which only bemoans the pretention of other more cerebral writers. This little rant has been building up for me for a while, because on some counts I agree with King. I do believe a lot of very quality fiction gets exiled to genre racks as a result of the publishing company's whims. I do believe that the fantastic is fertile grounds, and that plot is not a mark of inferior writing. But when his lament turns its bitter eye on tropes and maneuvers that he finds lacking, one can only see a child who has been hit by stones, stooping down to gather them up just so he can fling them back.
Today's short editorial
in the New York Times Magazine
bitching about the state of American short fiction is his most recent assault. This year King was the editor of the Best American Short Stories
collection. Frankly, I think this was a good idea; I like the diversity of editors that BASS
uses. And King, though his work to me is incredibly uneven and erratically literary, is undoubtedly an American storyteller every bit as representative as previous editors of the collection. As the editor of course it's his choice what to include; of course it's his prerogative to scorn some of the lesser choices. But to proclaim that the short story is ailing, that a huge amount is "show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers," and then to argue that this is an indication of the form's decline? Foolishness. Of course a lot of fiction is silly, insipid, and vapid. There's more of it being written then ever before, and the ratio of wheat-to-chaff is never what we might hope for. That's why we have awards judged by different types of people every year; that's why we have the Pushcart and the BASS
and the O. Henry, in order to keep a discourse about what we value in fiction. What we value, not just what we want to devalue.
This one essay in and of itself doesn't really bother me that much; I am grouchy and critical too, and someday might want to vent my frustrations in a too-short-to-make-a-real-point editorial somewhere. But this essay in conjunction with a lot of King's other recent bitching and moaning just makes me hostile. Hodge made the mistake of reading out loud to me King's postscript to the end of The Dark Tower
(in which book, in case you don't already know, the characters actually meet a character--a writer!--named "Stephen King"). Once again, King becomes defensive about the technique he uses, afraid it will make him "experimental" or "pretentious." In his postscript he claims that most other writers use metafiction to be overly clever and cute and show-offy, but King
uses it to create a very genuine discourse about art and creativity. Well, of course. Of course King came up with a use for metafiction no one else
ever came up with. When you put it that
way, Steve, I have a new respect for your convoluted and BY THE WAY self-conscious opus. You will know the definition of "self-conscious" by now, since you're fond of slinging it around as an accusation.
His acceptance speech
for the National Book Award a few years back was a bit more graceful, but still oddly defensive. At one point he accuses the judges of giving him the award as a "token," a way to deal with that annoying pop literature issue: "What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?" Yeah, as if quote unquote "literary writers" have nothing valid to say about their culture. As if there's nothing valid or entertaining to be found in the more obscure literary works up for awards, works that don't stand a chance of selling on the popular market and thus funding another year of work. While I agree that the line between genre fiction and literary fiction is artificial and could do with more crossing, I don't know that pure snobbery accounts for Grisham's lack of literary recognition. And some of King's complaints feel archaic, considering the amount of crossover literary success I've seen in the last ten years; the readers of my generation are as likely to be claiming canon-space for William Gibson, Jonathon Lethem, and Kelly Link as they are for more traditional literary writers, and people like Michael Chabon and Glen David Gold have made a number of us recall the joy to find in pure plot satisfaction.
I feel like there's a more organic way to look at literature, across a spectrum of art and storytelling and entertainment. If King weren't so defensive about his own place on the spectrum (or maybe about where his detractors place him on that spectrum), I think he'd have more interesting things to say about it.