A horror story for an elite: Stephen King takes prize
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Jim Farrelly - along with dozens of students from his "Stephen King on Film" and occult-literature classes at Ohio's University of Dayton - doesn't hesitate to see King as a cultural emissary. "Some people at the university think I'm crazy when I compare something of Stephen King's to Shakespeare," he says. "But it's a wonder to see how his texts stand up to scrutiny." One student linked evil and fury in King's "The Shining" to Shakespeare's "Othello." There's fodder for Milton fans, too: "You get mentions of 'Paradise Lost,' the fallen angels, the temptations of Jesus, the temptations of Adam and Eve, the resentment and jealousy that leads angels to challenge God."Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Farrelly is used to the criticism that his curriculum is "The Mary Poppins solution" - a spoonful of sugar to help literature go down. But he insists King has a place in the canon - or at least in the classroom. "What Faulkner did for his community in the South, Stephen King is doing for his community in Maine and New England. You get a feel for the origins of the American country."
Indeed, King's website has a map of Maine charting the small-town settings - an online version of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. And there's another parallel, points out Cecelia Tichi, a professor of English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.: Faulkner, too, was derided in his time, dismissed as "degenerate, a sexual pervert, an alcoholic, thought to be worse than Poe." Then he won the Nobel Prize.
And the King-Faulkner pair is in good company: Mark Twain, too, was derided as "a children's writer," Professor Tichi says. "He was popular - and then despised. No polite, educated, middle-class family would have his books in their home." "Crossover problems" have plagued novelist Joyce Carol Oates as well. "If you look at her career, you see much the same thing - hostility, suspicion, 'who does she think she is, aspiring to be one of 'us,' a literary elite?' " says Tichi.
King is not the first sci-fi king or commercial figure to wear the literary laurels. The National Book Foundation award went to Ray Bradbury in 2000. The year before, Oprah Winfrey won it for her quest to popularize the novel. But King's nomination has touched a literary nerve - mostly, say experts, because of genre, productivity, and his wild success.
To many, science fiction simply isn't viable literature - no matter the cultural import or literary ancestry. Tony Ruggiero, a science-fiction and horror writer and King fan in Suffolk, Va., knows that bias well: "Someone will walk up to the table [at a book signing] and say, 'Oh, you're a writer; what do you write?' Either word - science fiction or horror - and you see the eyebrows raise. You've got to work twice as hard because there's a stigma attached."
And while King's commercial success has been manna for the publishing world, it garners resentment, too.
King "could write a laundry list and people would buy it," says George Beahm, a Williamsburg, Va., author who's written eight books on King.
That mass appeal, says Cheuse, the NPR critic, is a legacy in itself. Nobody sees the award as putting King in the leagues of Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison, and other recipients, he says. "It's just that he's been a major factor in drawing people in to read the fiction.... The way to use him is as a kind of Judas goat to lead people into the reading of something more serious."
But if King is a Judas goat, he has an eager herd of millions. And a gaggle of defenders, too. Tichi, for one, has no use for the cabal of King detractors who anoint themselves the "real" literati: "To say that somehow his readers aren't the best readers or the real readers - for [the 'literary' writers] to say that only they and their readers matter or should be listened to - is just lunacy."