Hello, Failure

Of all the enemies of literature, success is the most insidious

Friday, September 26, 2003

Failure of the Day: Literature

Poor Stephen King. I don't think anybody has ever gotten shit on quite so much for winning the National Book Award.

I know, I know, I am a full-on Johnny-Come-Lately to put aside my considerable snobbery and finally discover that he is a fine writer and not just a fine genre writer. He also seems like a pretty cool guy overall; I have a soft spot for famous people who are devoted to their wives of 30+ years. I also think he's a hell of a role model for writers; I heard him say once "If it takes you 5 years to write a novel, you're a lazy bastard."

So when the National Book Award people gave him the lifetime achievement award, I thought it was cool. And fine, fine, he's no Saul Bellow but that's not to say that he got the award to "… recognize nothing but the commercial value of his books, which sell in the millions but do little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat." That's what Harold Bloom said in a commentary in the Boston Globe. That's just mean.

And elitist and unfair and a bunch of other things, but mostly I think it's untrue. I don't think there very many things that humanity appreciates more than being told a good yarn every now and again, and so what if it's about a murderous car.

Neither is giving the award to King "a dumbing down of our cultural life" (Bloom again) and to say it is puts a lot more faith in the power of that award than I would give it. Does he really think that the National Book Award has any affect on the culture at all? But what Bloom seems to be worried about is that the award will signal that it's OK to like things that entertain us without our having to work too hard. And that's what he's really mad about, I think.

I want the National Book Award to symbolize the very best in literature, too. But writing a book—and writing it well—in a genre that is considered by academics to be lowbrow does not make a person a lowbrow writer. It merely makes one popular, if they're lucky. And contrary to even my own snobbery, popular and bad are not the same thing necessarily. It seems to me that there's not the first thing wrong with every now and again giving an award to an artist who doesn't require that that you struggle to appreciate him. And for god's sake, he didn't get the award instead of Saul Bellow; he merely got it after him. And I for one am glad that I don't have choose one over the other for all time, because I am perfectly content to read both or neither as I see fit, without any input from Mr. Bloom.


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