Monday, November 16, 2009

Under the Dome of Debate: Genre vs. Literary Fiction

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!)


  1. I think Stephen King is actually an excellent writer. So way much better than other popular authors like Dan Brown and John Grisham, whom I find particularly bad (except for A Time to Kill, A Painted House, and An Innocent Man, which, strangely, I think are excellent). I especially love King's On Writing.

    In general, I'd say "best-selling" and "literary" don't mean the same thing, however.

  2. Here's a Rick Moody quote to sum it all up nicely (if I do say so myself):

    "Genre is a bookstore problem, not a literary problem."

    I personally find that all labeling books does is allow the bookstore to figure out which self to store the damn things. :)

    As for Under the Dome: Just bought it. Can't figure out how I got inside due to its size (over compensating is he?). Now I just have to have the stamina to read the brick.


    P.S. You haven't read Harry Potter? Do it now (it is definitely worth the read)!

  3. I used to turn up my literary nose at King as well. Luckily, a good friend of mine insisted that I give him a try and have now enjoyed some of his short stories and a couple of his novels. My favorite so far is Needful Things. While we're on the subject, I find that King is on an entirely different plane of talent than Mr. Brown. I do prefer to enjoy reading, but I think any enjoyment I will get from Brown's literature has run its course.

  4. Don't give up on Stephen King! He's worth the read! I forget who said it but I totally agree. His best was 'Needful Things.' 'Desperation' is right up there too. You haven't read Harry Potter? You don't know what you're missing. Buy one & read it. If you don't want to buy one go to the library & borrow one. It only took one HP book to get me 'hooked on Harry.' Don't worry about literary. Think about what's good & what you like to read for entertainment.

    You have a good looking & well written blog! I have two blogs. One at: http://thebumpyroadtopublishing.blogspot & my review blog is:
    Deb :-)

  5. The way I see it, the difference between literary fiction and general fiction is basically that general fiction is less concerned with the message and more concerned with the story. There might not be complex layers to rip through and analyse and they might not be making any comment on our society but that doesn't mean they can't be ripping good reads nor well-written.

    Although I my tastes are geared more towards the literary side of the field, I'm all for a well-written story and Stephen King is certainly, as your friend said, a man who knows how to write one.

    At the end of the day I think that so long as people are reading (rather than watching Rock of Love!!!!) then its a good thing. I'm going to keep an eye out for Under the Dome, too - thanks.

  6. I think King CAN be literary (especially with his short stories and novellas), but his writing in Under the Dome isn't. The characters lack real depth. None of them existed before I opened the book and none of them will live on when I'm finished. I'm very disappointed with this book.

  7. King had a story in the New Yorker last week. Now there's a literary feather in his cap!

    He gets a bad rap because he doesn't dilute his stories with literary fluff, nor is he (from what I've read) especially philosophical.
    I have a lot of respect for a man who writes about the blue collar experience without suffocating it with analysis. And the man does write to a blue collar audience.

    I know. I watch Rock of Love (but only on nostalgic days).

  8. @Jen Knox - Great point about The New Yorker - here's a link for anyone interested:

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  10. ha! yay for stephen king!

    This is such an interesting post you've put up. I had a look at Harold Bloom's article. I also had a look at the National Book Foundation Awards. Ok, Bloom has a point - does SK ask and answer deep questions about humanity and the world? Actually I would argue that he does a bit, but most people would probably disagree. People like Bloom are so important for our world as custodians and recorders of the great works of art, however, in my opinion, Bloom has a serious case of being so buried in his intellectual enclave that he has lost connection to the wider world at large.

    The NBF awards appear to go to writers who have contributed to American culture through writing, it doesn't say 'contributed to the American culture that belongs to the 29% of Americans who have graduated from college.' I'm not trying to imply that people who don't gain a tertiary education can't identify or appreciate 'literature', what I'm trying to say is that just because a body of work is not studied at a university level doesn't mean it doesn't have wide ranging, important and valuable impact on a culture. Actually, now that I think about it I recall my greek and roman myth lecturer talking about one of stephen king's short stories as an example of where story archetypes from the greeks and romans still occur in today's writing (it's the story where a man is shipwrecked on an island and ends up eating himself to survive.) Obviously he can't be all bad to all academics!

    There is a huge body of psychological research which seeks to examine why humans enjoy stories, in particular, stories which we know to not be true (fiction). The research seems to suggest that this is an extension of 'play' which is how children learn about the world and develop their intelligence and creativity. Well, apparantly it doesn't end in childhood, adults like to play too, and the more we play (read), the more creative we become in our thinking which helps us to become better problem solvers. People who are better problem solvers report higher levels of self esteem and efficacy, higher levels of happiness and satisfaction with life. So if it's people like Stephen King and JK Rowling and Dan Brown who are facillitating this in the wider population, how can this be argued as a bad thing, or something that is 'dumbing down' the culture?

    Anyway, that's alot of writing to say basically that the power of a good story should not be underestimated :-) (hope you don't mind my enormous comment)

    As another side note, I think I wrote a comment on your previous post of something to the effect that I had read nearly everything SK has written. I thought I'd better check that out, and it turns out I've actually only read just over half of everything he's written! So now I've set myself the challenge to read them all, so yes, I'll definately be reading Under the Dome.

  11. Hi Greg. I'm a new follower. I really liked your post. Got me thinking, which surprises me since it is freakin' 7:43 Am, LOL. I really like King in grammar school - he was my first "Adult" reading. I stopped reading, believing I had grown out of being a fan.

    But I think deep down inside I will always be a fan. He is a great story-teller and he introduced me to the love of the macabre - which has stuck with me to this day. If their are any great American novelist, he should be counted.

    Put it in perspective of any other art. If a country singer, rapper, pop singer and a violinist all win a grammy - because the violinist is more "refined" does that make her grammy count more?

  12. @mummazappa - Thanks for your excellent comment! I think you're right, even old, crusty Bloom, though he certainly lacks King's appeal, he has a place too. He's an expert in the truest sense of the word, and as such, his opinion must be considered. You always hear him referred to as "the keeper of the canon" - probably because he's actually published a book called "The Western Canon." No shortage of ego, either. ;) I loved your comments on the psychology of stories, too. That makes so much sense!

    @ParaJunkee - Thanks for following! Whether or not you consider him a "great" writer, his influence on culture and his fans can't be denied, and that makes him great.

  13. I know it's not The New Yorker, but Esquire has endorsed Stephen King as "the most underrated literary novelist of our time."

    I haven't read anything by King (unless the first 17 pages of The Stand count), but thought this was an interesting article.

  14. I have been a SK fan since I was 16 and I first read 'Christine' (gotta thank my older brother for that; as he gave me his copy!). And now, I love to read his work when I get the time; and have wanted to get my nose into this particular book for some time now.

    Now, I know what I'm going to get myself for Christmas!

  15. I have been a devout King fan for the past 18 years. I will admit that some are better than others but you cannot ignore how he has weaved many of his stories together...ultimately culminating into his Dark Tower Series which could be considered an onion it has so many layers. I challenge anyone to read that series and then tell me that he is not a dynamic and literary writer.

  16. I had stopped reading King many years ago. When I was a teenager I couldn't get enough of those early books, and later enjoyed The Dark Tower series, but then I ran across a few books of his I couldn't get through. UGH. I always laugh when I hear a debate about literary fiction and general fiction. To me a good book is a good book. Forget the labels, examine the prose! As far as Stephen King goes, well the premise of Under The Dome sounded too good to not give him another try after all these years, and I am happy I did. I am enjoying it so much! I will probably pick up Duma Key now too... Great post!

  17. Farhan ( 10, 2010 at 2:20 PM

    I am rather late in commenting on this thread but I just came across it and couldn't resist as I've been a huge King fan for over fifteen years now.

    Admittedly, he hasn't written anything in the new millennium approaching the quality of his best books; nevertheless, he is a master storyteller with an exquisitely tuned ear for folksy dialogue and regional, specifically New England, vernacular.

    He is massively underrated primarily due to the horror pigeon-hole he is usually placed in but his books have, on several occasions, transcended the genre.

    I'd like to share an excerpt from his novella 'The Breathing Method' from the anthology 'Different Seasons.'

    Let Stephen King's vivid imagery speak for itself:

    "Birth is wonderful, gentlemen, but I have never found it beautiful - not by any stretch of the imagination. I believe it is too brutal to be beautiful. A woman's womb is like an engine. With conception, the engine is turned on. At first it barely idles...but as the creative cycle nears the climax of birth, that engine revs up and up and up. Its idling whisper becomes a steady running hum, and then a rumble, and finally a bellowing, frightening roar. Once that engine has been turned on, every mother-to-be understands that her life is in check. Either she will bring the baby forth and engine will shut down again, or that engine will pound louder and harder and faster until it explodes, killing her in blood and pain."