Look out! There may be airborne swine heading your way. The NY Times (a supposed bastion of America's intellectualism) just described Stephen King's new novel Under the Dome as having "the scope and flavor of literary Americana" and placing "more value on humanity than on horror."
Stephen King, literary? More than a few snobby critics probably just choked on their bagels and lox. Certainly the guru of genre fiction, the maestro of horror and fantasy, the king of the laughably cardboard characters isn't entering the same literary hollowed ground as your Philip Roths and Don DeLillos?
Actually, I think a more important question is: Who cares if he is? For whatever reason, King always seems to be at the forefront of the age-old debate about bestsellers vs. literary fiction. My rant about Dan Brown notwithstanding, what is it about writers who sell well that inspires such self-righteous indignation amongst the literary illuminati?
With King, nothing illustrated this more clearly than when, in 2003, the National Book Foundation awarded King a Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. One of the country's foremost and well-respected literary scholars, Harold Bloom, responded by writing a scathing op/ed piece in the Boston Globe arguing that King's award is "another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life" and King "is an immensely inadequate writer." Ouch.
I know this high-brow vs. low-brow debate isn't exactly new ground, but I bring it up now because I've totally changed sides over the last several years. Part of the reason for my about-face is the Harry Potter books. I haven't read them myself, but it has been really fun to see people (both kids and adults!) excited enough about books that they'd turn off the Playstation and skip the season finale of "Rock of Love" (now THAT's the dumbing down of our cultural life) to read.
Even so, I still was no real fan of King's, based solely on the few (what I thought were) crappy novels of his I'd read back in high school — more than 15 years ago. Last summer, though, I picked up Duma Key on a whim.....and totally read the hell out of it. I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed it. As my friend Jeff says, "the man just knows how to tell a story," and I think that's what made that particular book so much fun — it was absolutely riveting. So, I'm stoked to read Under the Dome.
Anyway, at the end of the day, there really is no accounting for taste (to use an overused cliche). There will always be good and bad genre fiction, and there will always be good and bad literary fiction, and there will always be disagreement about which is which. Reading should be fun, so I say read for whatever it is about books that makes you happy — not for what some contrarian critic thinks!
What's your take on the bestselling vs. literary fiction debate? Do you plan to read Under the Dome?
(Addendum added 11/17: With thanks to Jen Knox for making a great point, King just published a short story in The New Yorker. Seems like a sure sign of King's literary appeal when the good folks at The New friggin' Yorker will publish him!)