A horror story for an elite: Stephen King takes prize
Whether you've read the novel or not, you know the spine-tingling story: A perfectly normal man in a remote old house starts hearing voices, slips into insanity, and kills his family.Skip to next paragraph
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"The Shining"? You're off by 200 years. It's America's first novel, "Wieland," written by Charles Brockden Brown in 1798.
Of course Stephen King, with 300 million copies of his books in print, sells better than his Revolutionary forefather, now relegated to the footnotes of American literary history. But the reigning master of horror is still battling the forces of snobbery. Wednesday, as he receives the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, he's also at the center of a debate over what, exactly, is "literature."
The lifetime achievement award has gone to the likes of John Updike, Philip Roth, and Eudora Welty, and the announcement that King was next in line drew roars of protest and fears of an imploding Western canon from literary critic Harold Bloom and a host of others who deride King's work as "penny dreadfuls" - and dismiss the horror genre as pure pulp. For literary lions and fervent fans, such tirades probe the line between highbrow and lowbrow - and raise some eyebrows, too.
"These lines between popular and elite have always been very fluid in American culture," says Dana Heller, an English professor and director of the Humanities Institute at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. "A lot of that [fluidity] has to do with how we understand the term 'popular' itself. It could be base and vulgar, the lowest common denominator. But there's also a definition of popular that arises with democratic movements - that what people at large like must be good."
King has been compared to Edgar Allan Poe and William Shakespeare - and derided by Mr. Bloom as "an immensely inadequate writer." Like Charles Dickens, King's published his work in serial form to great commercial success. Critics quibble over which parallel is best: J.K. Rowling, John Milton, Dean Koontz, Danielle Steel, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
But those comparisons, cautions Alan Cheuse, book commentator on NPR's "All Things Considered," go only so far: "The material is not central to the culture in the way that Dickens's material was. Dickens was writing about the very serious core of British society - life in the big city, distinctions of life among the various social classes - and King's material is really much more peripheral. He's telling ghost stories, basically."
King's real gift, says Mr. Cheuse, is his broad appeal. "Even Shakespeare's most serious plays had sections that appealed to groundlings - the lowest audience - and King manages to bring in those serious readers and the lowest common denominator."
King himself has made sure to defy categorization. He writes of blood and gore and cyborgs, a rabid St. Bernard hurling himself against a broken-down Ford Pinto, and dead pets who return to seek revenge. Yet he quotes the Greek poet and essayist George Seferis. He includes Wallace Stevens's "The Emperor of Ice Cream" in his vampire novel "Salem's Lot." He wrote a novella imitating Jorge Luis Borges. And he's written "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile."
To some, that straddling of popular and elite literary worlds, and of the human and uncanny, is his greatest gift. "It speaks to something very profound going on in our culture, and the way we understand our own humanness," says Professor Heller. "As our sense of being human changes in a high-tech global environment, our literature is going to have to be attuned to those changes as well. And literature once associated with machines or with the nonhuman is going to seem more humanized and take on more value."