A lot of ink has been spilled (or whatever the information-age version of that figure of speech might be) over what Stephen King said at Wednesday’s National Book Awards ceremony in New York, and what Shirley Hazzard said right back at him.
Of all the many reactions I’ve seen, this one struck me as especially worthy of note:
When is it appropriate to make lists and start lecturing and when is it wiser to keep a steady campaign going, to talk about books one loves, to highlight what makes genre fiction so good and complementary, even, to literary fiction?…
Good writing is the key. It’s in places we don’t necessarily expect it to be, and comes in many different forms. Let’s keep our minds open and welcome all the possibilities. No, literature isn’t a “competition,” as Hazzard put it, and neither should people feel any sense of guilt that they aren’t reading the authors King recommends. These things take time, obviously. But labels are just that, designations often arbitrary. If it’s good, then that’s all that should matter.
Read the whole thing here. It’s by Sarah Weinman, who blogs at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, where she writes regularly (and smartly) about mysteries and other related matters.
What struck me about this posting is its openness to the full range of potential aesthetic experience–an openness that Shirley Hazzard, as fine a writer as she is, appears to lack. Like Hazzard, I’ve never read any of Stephen King’s books (though I mean to), but I do read a moderate amount of genre fiction, and I think some of it deserves to be taken quite seriously. Raymond Chandler and Patrick O’Brian, for instance, both merit that kind of consideration, and so do James M. Cain and Rex Stout, albeit on a lesser level. I haven’t read much of Georges Simenon, but what I’ve read I’ve found compelling. Among living writers, I enjoy Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake. And I’m lucky enough to count Laura Lippman, a first-rate mystery writer whose latest book is something more than that, as a friend.
As for Stephen King’s speech, I think it was misguided at best. You don’t change people’s minds by calling them names, which he came perilously close to doing on Wednesday. If King changed any minds at the National Book Awards ceremony, I’m not aware of it. More likely, he hardened still further the resistance of his highbrow listeners to considering the possibility that he might have had a point–which he did.
To my way of thinking, genre fiction is by definition limited in its expressive possibilities, but those limits are a lot less restrictive than many, perhaps most people realize, especially by comparison with much of what is now thought of as “serious” fiction. Back in 1997, I wrote an essay called “Real Cool Killers” about Crime Novels: American Noir, a two-volume set published by the Library of America. (Yes, it’ll be in
A Terry Teachout Reader.) Here’s part of what I said:
The Library of America, a nonprofit publisher whose dust jackets declare it to be “dedicated to preserving America’s best and most significant writing in handsome, enduring volumes,” has brought out Crime Novels: American Noir, a pair of volumes containing eleven examples of what has lately come to be called “noir fiction,” after the cinematic genre of the Forties known as film noir. No such fancy name was applied to these short novels when they first appeared in paperback, bedecked with cheesy cover art and tumescent blurbs promising their semiliterate purchasers the cheapest of thrills. Forty years ago, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me and Charles Wileford’s Pick-Up were smut; now they belong to the ages.
Arrant relativism? Well, yes, and then some. But while the noir novelists scarcely deserve to be ranked among America’s best and most significant writers, their harsh tales are infinitely more readable than the chokingly tedious output of a thousand American writers of impeccably correct reputation, and I venture to guess that people will still be turning the pages of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and Cornell Woolrich’s I Married a Dead Man long after the likes of Toni Morrison and Allan Gurganus are remembered only by aging professors of literary theory who wonder why nobody signs up for their classes any more.
Does that put me in Stephen King’s camp? I think not. I don’t think The Long Goodbye is as good a book as The Great Gatsby, and I believe the difference between the two books is hugely important. But I also don’t think it’s absurd to compare them, and I probably re-read one as often as the other.
The point is that I accept the existence of hierarchies of quality without feeling oppressed by them. I have plenty of room in my life for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Chandler, for Aaron Copland and Louis Armstrong, for George Balanchine and Fred Astaire, and I love them all without confusing their relative merits, much less jumping to the conclusion that all merits are relative.
In case you hadn’t noticed, that’s part of what this blog is all about–a big part.