15 September 2003

Sometimes one simply must scratch one's head in wonder at the posing and idiocy in the publishing industry. Today's example (probably only the first) concerns the National Book Awards and complete misunderstanding of the nature of both literature and awards. An article in the New York Times notes that Stephen King (!) has been selected to receive an award [free registration required] for "distinguished contribution to American letters." The article notes that

Mr. King's selection is the first time that the organization, the National Book Foundation, has awarded its medal to an author best known for writing in popular genres like horror stories, science fiction or thrillers. Very little of Mr. King's work would qualify as literary fiction.

And thereby hangs a tale. Hopefully, a few editors and publishing-industry figures, too.

Postulate: Authors and their works are not coextensive. On one level, nobody should even blink an eye at this award. The award is for a "distinguished contribution to American letters." The last time I checked, writers need libraries, schools, promotion, and most particularly audiences. There is little question that Mr. King has fulfilled each of these criteria—certainly moreso than has, say, Philip Roth (a past winner). This is not a "book of the year" award; the NBA Awards, which are, remain distinct from the medal under discussion.

At a broader level, nobody with any brains really believes that authors and their works are identical. Consider, for example, Ezra Pound, particularly his earlier poetry. Ezra Pound was a traitor, a fascist, a bigot, and a miserable excuse for a human being. He was also a skilled poet. Reading his early poetry under contest conditions (that is, identified only as "Author 719" or some such) reveals very little of his intensely flawed nature. That is as it should be. Consider the opposite phenomenon—authors with extreme desires for privacy like Thomas Pynchon. If one were required to use (and limited to using) the same interpretive tools as are used to make Pound's poetry unfashionable and virtually outside the canon in reading Pynchon's works, allowing for the differences in genre (of which more anon), Pynchon's reputation would be vastly lesser and different than it is now—simply because he and his personality are not writ so large.

Postulate: The nature of her readership does not determine an author's contribution to letters. Mr. King is not one of my favorite authors. I find his work shallow, overlong, and unambitious, and his plots are often extremely predictable. I do not share the common (and currently fashionable) "appreciation" for his purported "storytelling skills," because his writing often removes me from participating in his story. His audience is largely of unsophisticated readers who read as much to pass time as anything else.

And none of that matters.

"American letters" had better not mean "only the stuff we'd be comfortable with college students reading," because there are a lot of college students from every discipline reading Stephen King. When I was in college, he was barely a blip on the literary radar screen, principally because most people were familiar with him only through Brian de Palma's screen version of Carrie. American letters, however, exists far outside the academy, or wine-and-cheese parties on the Upper East Side, where barbarism rules (frankly, one is less likely to find civilization east of the Hudson than west of it). In my day, we were reading Tolkein and Bradbury (Ray, not Malcolm) and Clarke between classes covering contemporary literature that included Updike and Coover and Cheever. Toni Morrison was not yet fashionable in the core of literature; her works might be found in Women's Studies (my university was one of the pioneers) or as a particular freshman composition instructor's supplemental text. However, I seriously doubt that as many literature students and future writers—not by any means the same thing—were as influenced by Updike and Coover and Cheever combined as were influenced by Ray Bradbury, let alone Clarke or Tolkein.

A few hundred years ago, William Shakespeare (I refuse to argue over the "real" author of his plays—see the preceding postulate) was a hack and Samuel Johnson was the leading figure in English letters. Shakespeare was considered common and vulgar; the educated elite preferred Johnson's sarcasm and wit. Today, Shakespeare is a central part of the English-language canon and Johnson might be encountered as part of an advanced survey of seventeenth-century literature, and probably would not consume more than a class session or two in total.

Postulate: Virtually everything considered to be "letters" is in the same genre. This arises from the publishing industry's historical misuse of the term "genre." There are only four genres: poetry, drama, rhetoric, and fiction. What the publishing industry likes to call "genre fiction" is instead just often irrelevant marketing categories, and not very accurate at that. By publishing industry standards, Le Guin is a despised "genre writer," while Atwood makes a valiant effort to avoid that label and is generally accepted as "mainstream." Leaving nationality aside, the substance of their works does not justify this distinction. Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid's Tale are farther inside the industry's perception of "genre literature" than are Malafrena or Orsinian Tales (or, to bring in the even-more-despised "young adult" category, Very Far Away From Anywhere Else). On the other hand, there is almost no principled distinction in subject matter between Oryx and Crake and Le Guin's corresponding The Dispossessed—except that the latter is a far superior work in both "storytelling" and "literary" quality.

What instead this reflects is a regrettable tendency on the part of the industry to both determine the quality of a book by whether it has a rocket ship (or dragon or detective) on the cover and contradict itself by treating books within a given category as fungible items. If there is one thing that can be said for literature, it is that books are not commodities to the reader. A given reader cannot replace Turow's Pleading Guilty with Grisham's awful The Firm, despite the fact that both books revolve around the protagonist's efforts to leave a corrupt law firm. However, if "Turow" and "Grisham" were closer together alphabetically, they might well be shelved side-by-side in a bookstore.

In the end, then, Stephen King's services to American letters justify awarding him a medal for a "distinguished contribution" more than do those of several of the previous recipients. That marketing considerations (not to mention outright snobbery from people who don't actually read that which they disdain) have been until now outcome-determinative is the real story, and the real problem. Remember, taste in subject matter is not really relevant; after all, some literary lionesses write whole books about boxing, which is about as lowbrow as one can get.

As someone who unabashedly reads speculative fiction for its literary merits, I often feel like one of the three-fifths of "all others" who outnumber the respectable full citizens of the literary world, with just as much justification for such a distinction.