I write about “My Stephen King Problem”

Many SF fans seem to be under the misapprehension that reading genre fiction is a low-status activity. I am not sure why they have this belief. To me, it does not seem to describe the real world. In my eyes, a person who categorically dislikes genre fiction is in the same category as a person who categorically dislikes pop music, sitcoms, or graphic novels: it’s totally valid to dislike these things, but, if you do, I’d hesitate to call you culturally informed.

Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but, to me, it seems obvious that the most high-status consumers of art are the ones who can see the worth in any artwork (of course, I’m cribbing extensively here from Carl Wilson’s book).

To me, it also seems obvious that literary criticism is not a closed activity. I think that some SF fans think that literary judgment is exclusively created by a small cabal of professors, book reviewers, and big-name literary authors. But that’s not my view of things. Because of his erudition and tenured professorship, Harold Bloom might have more influence than me, but I believe that him and I are engaged in fundamentally the same pursuit. He is doing his best to affect the prevailing literary judgment and so am I. I also think that both of us are doing pretty much the same thing as a fourteen year old who tweets that, “Spider-man rox!!!!”

All of us are in dialogue with each other, and we’re all using basically the same tools (our words, our judgment, our tastes, and our knowledge). There’s nothing magic about what Harold Bloom does. He’s just a guy who thinks about books and then writes down the stuff that he thinks.

Anyway, with all of that out of the way, I can finally get to the main point, which is that when I read an essay like “My Stephen King Problem,” (found via Mumpsimus) in which a literary critic uses his reaction to Stephen King’s work to explain why he does not read genre fiction, I don’t feel angry and persecuted. Actually, I kind of admire the audacity of someone who’s willing to say that he categorically dislikes genre fiction.*

And I think that the article (while a little dismissive towards people who do like Stephen King) is actually a pretty thoughtful exploration of the author’s tastes. For me, the most illuminating the passage was this one:

My wife, who works in the medical field, made the perfectly valid point that not everybody reads fiction for the reasons I read it. (Among the things I hope for when I open a book of fiction is that each sentence I read will be right and true and beautiful, that the particular music of those sentences will bring me a pleasure I wouldn’t be able to find the exact equivalent of in another writer, that I will be continually surprised by what a particular writer reveals about particular human beings and the world they inhabit. A great book of fiction will lead me toward some fresh understanding of humanity, and toward joy.)

When I read this, I thought, “Bam! That’s the problem!”

Because all that stuff? That is not why I read books.

I read books in order to think new thoughts. Sometimes those new thoughts come at the sentence-level: “Oh, I didn’t know that words could join up in quite this way.” But, more often, they occur at a more conceptual level: “Oh, I didn’t know that a place could look like that, or that people could be like that, or that these elements could link up in quite this way.”

All that aesthetic stuff about the music of the sentences and stuff being right and true and beautiful? That’s nice. And sometimes I like that. But not always. Plenty of my most favorite works don’t have very interesting sentences (like The Jungle…or..umm…almost everything that I read in translation).

It’s alright to want fiction to be beautiful, but I, personally, don’t require that my fiction be beautiful. It just has to be interesting.

Sometimes I think readers lose sight of what seems, to me, to be the plain fact that fiction isn’t something that happens on a page; it’s something that happens in the reader’s head. And the thing that happens in the reader’s head is not purely verbal, it’s also visual and emotional and it has subconscious and symbological elements. Reading is a full-brain experience, you know. Good fiction is fiction that does interesting things inside the reader’s brain. Sometimes those interesting things involve manipulating words to create little flower-arrangements–tiny bouquets of concepts–inside the reader’s mind. And sometimes those interesting things involve playing with larger concepts: plot expectations, archetypes, themes, political concerns, etc.

Some people respond more intensely to certain kinds of reading pleasure. It’s totally okay for LA Review of Books dude to say that certain kinds of manipulations make him happier than others. It seems clear from his essay that he finds King’s writing to be unutterably dull. And that, for him, is enough to kill any possible pleasure he could get from the work. I think that’s totally fine.

I also think it’s fine that he’s decided to categorically reject genre fiction. As he puts it:

I’d informally decided sometime around my fiftieth birthday that ninety-nine percent of my fiction reading (and I was at a point in my life where I was calculating how many books I was going to be able to read before I came down with dementia or died) would be devoted to certifiably literary fiction (by both the dead and the living, and including dead and living writers of certifiably literary genre novels) and books by friends and acquaintances. I would keep my raffine literary nose out of books of pulp.

It seems clear that this aversion on his part is based on the idea that most genre fiction is poorly-written. And can we really argue with that? There are tons of classics of genre fiction that are badly written (like most of Lovecraft or Philip K. Dick), but there are comparatively fewer literary classics that are poorly-written (although a few–Babbit and Wuthering Heights**–do come to mind).

Clearly a genre that prizes sentence-level beauty (literary fiction) will contain more well-written work than genres which do not. And if sentence-level beauty is necessary for you to enjoy a book, then you’re pretty justified in avoiding genre work (except when it’s been ‘certified’ by an authority that you trust).

But I also think that work doesn’t have to be well-written in order to be good. And I think that plenty of well-written work is boring. In this, I stray from the Samuel R. Delany and Susan Sontag assertion that there is no separation between style and content. These (and other) critics have long claimed that content is not something which is encoded by the words on the page…it is inseparable from the words. According to this paradigm a work (although each critic will usually cite a few exceptions) must be beautifully-written in order to be interesting.

But, to me, this does not seem to be accurate. In fact, there are many different ways to say pretty much the same thing. Translation proves this. Constance Garnett and Pevear/Volokhonsky translated Anna Karenina in vastly different ways, but when people read each version, they still had much the same reaction to the various elements. The meaning and enjoyability of a work are clearly not as delicate as lovers of beauty would have you believe.

I don’t know much about other art forms, but it seems to me that there are plenty of forms where works are considered interesting despite their lack of beauty. All of this modern music-schoolish music sounds dissonant and atonal to me, but people see some merit in it. I also see people dress themselves up in big glasses and big beards that seem designed to catch attention through purposeful ugliness. I would think of other examples, but I am very, very tired.

*After all, even Harold Bloom put The Dispossessed, On Wings of Song, and Little, Big on his big old Western Canon.

**Before you come at me, let me just say that I adore both of these books and that I find them to be very interesting.

7 Comments on “I write about “My Stephen King Problem”

  1. “I don’t know much about other art forms, but it seems to me that there are plenty of forms where works are considered interesting despite their lack of beauty. All of this modern music-schoolish music sounds dissonant and atonal to me, but people see some merit in it.”

    –Yes. Been there. Seven years of my life.

    “And if sentence-level beauty is necessary for you to enjoy a book, then you’re pretty justified in avoiding genre work (except when it’s been ‘certified’ by an authority that you trust).”

    –Yup. That’s my reading habit right there.

    “Babbit and Wuthering Heights**–do come to mind”

    –Oh my God yes. And I still don’t like them, asterisks be damned.

    “But I also think that work doesn’t have to be well-written in order to be good. And I think that plenty of well-written work is boring.”

    –The first sentence is a matter of opinion, and you seem to accept disagreement on that. Or it depends what you mean by ‘good.’ I’m reading ‘A Storm of Swords’ now, and I thought the first two of that series were awful, but I don’t know if watching the HBO series colored my opinion. Anyway, I wouldn’t say the series has much artistic merit; however, I don’t know if that’s what you mean by ‘good.’ In the sense of making me think about new things, I’d say no. In the sense of being enjoyable, yes. And if there’s anything I learned from seven years of music study, it’s that fuck that artistry shit; if it’s not enjoyable it sucks. Which I think gets to the second sentence.

    ” Translation proves this. Constance Garnett and Pevear/Volokhonsky translated Anna Karenina in vastly different ways, but when people read each version, they still had much the same reaction to the various elements.”

    –Overly general and I don’t even agree with regard to Tolstoy, but particularly with French writers I’ve found a huge difference.

    Great post, anyway.

    • Many people draw a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘enjoyable’. I don’t. Every single book requires payment from me in terms of my time. Either a book is worth my time or it isn’t. I definitely get different things out of different books, but, to me, any book that’s a good use of my time is a good book.

      I also agree that bad translation can kill a book, but even a good translation is clearly using vastly different words than the original (and than other good translations), while achieving effects that are very similar to those of the original.

  2. My wife and I have this discussion all the time.

    She categorically pans genre fiction as bad writing. She, for the most part, doesn’t believe genre writing can be literary. I beg to differ, though she’s an admitted literary snob that way.

    Stephen King is good at his job. Is he a good writer? To each his own. After reading his book on writing, I think he realizes the limit of his literary value as a writer, but he for damn sure knows how to write a damn good enjoyable book.

    There’s only so much Stephen King I can take because, at the sentence level, because he doesn’t quite give me what I want. Just the same, there’s only so much literary fiction I can take because, sometimes, I just want to read a damn good enjoyable book.

    When I first started writing, I wrote very bad sci fi stories. Then I switched genres, and wrote less bad literary fiction, selling one story. Now, I’m writing less bad spec fic with literary elements. I think genre fiction can have literary elements, as I do with my own writing, but those elements are more so found in short stories than novels.

    Regardless, people tend to pan genre novels because the top sellers aren’t chock full of literary elements, And if they do have those elements, bookstores don’t put them in the genre sections because the author and publisher insist they aren’t genre. Case in point, The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood.

    • Actually, I think that Stephen King is one of the more literary genre writers. He certainly has an appreciation for detail, and part of the joy of reading his novels (although I have to say that I haven’t read very many of them) is in his description of a certain kind blue-collar American life.

      I also think that there’s plenty of genre work which has sentence-level beauty. But I don’t think it’s anyone’s duty to seek out this work. Beautiful genre work is most pleasing to people who are able to appreciate both the beauty and the genre elements. To those who read it just for the beauty, it’s likely to not be as satisfying. Similarly, literary work with genre elements is often displeasing to genre readers who can’t appreciate its beauty (i.e. all of the genre readers who criticized Oryx and Crake or The Road for being cliche).

      Personally, I’ll confess that I’m more tolerant of a lack of sentence-level beauty than most readers. If a badly-written book shows me something that I haven’t seen before–a story structure, a setting, a character, a situation–then I am usually perfectly willing to fall under its spell. I think that flawed books are important, because they sometimes contain things that well-written books do not.

      I think that many beautiful writers think that it doesn’t matter what they write _about_, so long as they do it beautifully. And often they’re right. But I do think it’s a shame that more writers don’t try to find less-traveled subject matters. For instance, Upton Sinclair’s _The Jungle_ is not a well-written book. I’m sure that Ernest Hemingway’s book on Lithuanian meat-packers would have been much better than Sinclair’s. But Hemingway did not choose to write that book. Instead, he chose to write yet another book about jaded expatriates. If Sinclair had written a book about jaded expatriates, it would’ve been incredibly boring. But because he chose a subject matter that was vital and full of life (and examined it with verve and honesty), he still managed to produce a very powerful book.

  3. I think Stephen King does have a great attention to detail, and he does indeed capture a certain Americana very well, but at the sentence level his writing lacks literary excellence. My opinion, of course.

    I must respectfully disagree that those who state with firm assurance that genre work isn’t literary doesn’t have a duty to seek it out. I think it’s unfair to make such a sweeping generalization, and then stubbornly not seek out the suggested genre works that have literary merit. I realize novels and short stories are quite different, but those who believe there are no literary elements in genre fiction should start with Strange Horizons, and then see if they still believe otherwise.

    • I think we’re pretty much on the same page re: Stephen King’s writing. I just wanted to point out that literary writing prizes two attributes above all else: sentence-level beauty and attention to detail. And Stephen King is pretty good on one of these. That’s not bad. Most genre writers aren’t good at either (although they’re often good at other things).

      I don”t think that a person necessarily needs to give a fair shake to an artform. Bashing an art form can be pretty fun, and I don’t think it really hurts anyone. One of the good things about art is that it provides an acceptable object for hatred and derision.

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