Ever since the National Book Foundation announced that they would bestow their annual achievement award on Stephen King–and especially since Harold Bloom announced his ire about this–I’ve been plotting a response. Defenses of King have popped up in the meantime, for instance here and here. I couldn’t tell whether this was a defense or not (the author plays both sides of the fence). None of them quite captured what is for me the essence of the case against Bloom.
Tonight, however, I found the response that entirely discharges me of the need to write what I think, because it perfectly reflects what I think. Needless to say, it’s excellent! At his blog Easily Distracted, Timothy Burke notes the obvious but under-remarked fact that Harold Bloom has read little of King’s work, if any:
The most important point is that…qualitative judgements are hard to make, not easy. They’re the meat-and-potatoes business of literary criticism. They require a lot of laying of philosophical and intellectual foundations to make in general (which Bloom has done, though in ways I profoundly disagree with) but also a lot of labor in each and every specific case, which Bloom has not done.
And he proceeds to the gist of the matter:
The culture which matters most is not merely the culture that aesthetes praise as worthy, but the culture which indures, inspires, circulates, and is meaningful and memorable for many people, to the widest audiences. Sometimes that involves the adroit manipulation of archetypical themes and deep tropes of the popular culture of a particular time and place, and King does both of those things. I don’t know how he’ll be read a century from now, but I do know that in this time and place he not only tells a damn fine story (most of the time: even I would regard some of his work as hackwork) but manages to say some important things about consumerism, family, childhood, apocalyptic dread, obsession and many other resonant, powerful themes of his day and age.
This is a vastly greater level of articulation than I had approached in my thinking about this, which had gotten only about as far as invoking two nineteenth-century giants, Scott and Dickens. I once contemplated writing a dissertation about the careers of Sir Walter Scott and Henry James, which pretty quickly proved impracticable though the contemplating was great fun (a sad truism about dissertations). I remember musing that if such a comparative study were to extend into the twentieth century, the most logical place for it to lead would be, full-circle-wise, to King, a hugely popular and prolific storyteller like the Author of Waverley, with frequent recourse to the supernatural and a bead on, as Burke notes above, the “resonant, powerful themes of his day and age.”
Scott was not consistently good and certainly is not regarded today with anything like the respect accorded the likes of James or George Eliot. But he thought up, and vividly put down, the stories that most captured the collective nineteenth-century imagination (and not just in England, either). He may be just the figure to shed some literary-historical light on King’s achievement, whether you’re inclined to understand it as artistic, commercial, or something in between.