NEW YORK — Certain infernal regions must be frostier than usual. Stephen King got the National Book Award.
Well, not the Award, exactly, but the annual medal of the association that gives the National Book Awards, which is presented, according to a recent New York Times story, "for distinguished contribution to American letters." Still, considering that other recipients have included John Updike, Philip Roth, and Toni Morrison, King doesn't have anything to be ashamed of in the company he'll be keeping.
The big question that's occupying the chattering classes, though, is whether the company he's keeping has any reason to be ashamed of him.
Let's just get some things out of the way, shall we?
King is an excellent writer, by any yardstick. How do you know? He writes the kind of sentences that make you want to keep reading, for one. That's a pretty powerful recommendation in its own right, I think. He's able to craft stories in language that inspires powerful effects in his readers. How often does any writer manage to evoke that kind of emotion in you - make you actually change your life because of what you've read, even if it's just to the extent of keeping the light in the bathroom on just a little longer than usual, or sneaking a quick peek (even though it's silly - you know it's silly - but just in case) in the closet?
Some people might say that it's easy to scare the living daylights out of someone; what's hard is to make them feel for a character. One word for them: tearjerker. Yes, shameless emotional manipulation is as shameless emotional manipulation does, but even with the occasional Grand Guignol extremes and the sense that occasionally, like some of his characters, King becomes obsessed with particular themes for periods spanning several novels at a stretch (the tormented writer, the endangered child, the weak woman), there's an emotional truth in King's best work that shines through. Sure, he's uneven, but is there anyone who isn't?
Does he write the kind of fiction that most people assign to the category of "literature" nowadays? Not usually; I'll grant you that. But, you know, neither did Edgar Allan Poe, or Arthur Conan Doyle, or Jules Verne, or Dante. Now, don't get me wrong; I'm not claiming that King hits the kind of heights that the finest writers of Western literature have scaled. But those heights are Olympian; I'll settle for saying that King, at his finest, is one of the best American writers working today, and given that the medal is given by the National Book Awards, and not the Grand All Time World Literature Awards, I'm feeling pretty good about saying it.
(And for the few skeptics out there who aren't willing to take my word for it, you might want to check out King's tattoos of literary cred: publication in Best American Short Stories, his O. Henry Award, and his regular publication in that arbiter of who's literary now, The New Yorker. All these awards and publications are entirely irrelevant to whether you think King's a good writer, of course, but if they make you feel better about defending your secret love of the man at family reunions, then there you go.)
I'm actually more worried about King's defenders than I am his accusers. Ultimately, the accusers are going to be proved right or browbeaten into submission by the judgment of posterity. There was once a package of Elvis' greatest hits called "Fifty Million Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong." This, of course, is idiotic; fifty million Elvis fans can be wrong. Tens of millions of people were wrong about that whole flat earth thing. The point is that that the Elvis fans aren't wrong, and the reason we know they're not is that chill we get in the back of our neck when we hear The King croon "Love Me Tender" or "Mystery Train." A chill in the back of our neck a little like the one when we read a later King's "Night Shift" or "Different Seasons."
When we read them. In book form. You would think this would be obvious, but I got a chill worthy of the best horror fiction when I read that one of the board members (who shall remain nameless here) praised King's work as follows: "His work has translated so well in so many other mediums ... I really liked that it was not only good on the page, it makes great movies, I mean, really great movies."
God save the King from these kind of defenders. King has written numerous novels and short stories about people damned by vampires, by zombies, by their own fears; he now gets to see how it feels to be damned by the faintest of praise.
King loves writing, and he loves reading. It's clear in his books, which are literate things. Not that Stephen King needs me to flog his books, but a while back he published one called Danse Macabre, which remains to this day the most intelligent treatment of the field of horror out there, particularly (though not only) the literature of horror, both classic and contemporary. Anyone who reads that book can't help but come away with a real respect for the man's insight, intelligence, and broad reading, and sees how he applies it to everything he does. King's books may make great movies, but this isn't even icing on the cake; it's a different food group entirely. King is being honored for his books, and deserves to face posterity's judgment as a writer, not as source material.
One last thing. The man has probably sold as many books as anyone on earth, with the possible exception of this woman in Britain who wrote a couple of novels about a young wizard you might have heard of. And these books, I can guarantee you, are actually read, not used as intellectual decoration or, for that matter, doorstops. King, among a few others, in an age of television and movies, has proven that people will, can, and do read, with avaricious pleasure and full engagement.
Talk about a contribution to American letters.