September 11, 2012

On Genre Snobbery

Stephen King certainly doesn’t need defending by the likes of me, but sometimes the guy doing the attacking is flailing so miserably that you just can’t help but join the fray, even belatedly.

I should start out by saying that I’m not a particular fan of King’s stuff. My initial exposure to him was the bad movies that were made out of several of his books while I was around high school age (Cujo and Pet Sematary, for instance). They all seemed so stupid (full disclosure – horror’s not really my bag to begin with) that I couldn’t imagine the books were much better.

In college, however, a couple of friends who were fans suggested I actually try reading some of his books. So I scarfed down Misery and The Stand and a few others. I quickly figured out why movies based on King’s books turned out so lousy – his strength as a writer was in description, set up, and cultivating a powerful feeling of dread. You just can’t take that kind of thing, plop it on the big screen, and expect it to work. It’s probably not a coincidence that my favorite King on film work is Kubrick’s version of The Shining, which King himself disliked so much he made his own TV version many years later.

That being said, back to the flailing lashing out man. In this case, it’s Dwight Allen, writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books back in July (via). It’s a long, tragic tale of how, after decades of not reading any of King’s stuff on principle (Allen litters the piece with the names of the literary gods whose work he does read, don’t worry), he finally gave in and picked up a few of King’s lesser works. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t much care for them, although I’m not sure how anyone going in with this kind of attitude would have reached a different conclusion:
I thought I’d try another King novel, a later one, to see if his writing had changed over the years. I was avoiding, I admit, what was then King’s very latest, 11/22/63, in part because it is so long (more than 800 pages) and despite the praise it had received in, for instance, the New York Times Book Review (the editors decided it was one of the five best books of fiction of 2011) and The New Yorker (‘a deeply felt and often well-realized work, which extends King’s dominion over fantasy to the terrain of the historical record,’ Thomas Mallon wrote).

So I went to the library and took out The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999), which ran to a mere 220 pages. I liked the title — I am a baseball fan — though I wondered how many readers (diehard Red Sox fans aside) picking up the book in 2012 would recognize the name Tom Gordon (a.k.a. Flash Gordon, a relief pitcher who thrived in the nineties)
To be fair, Allen eventually does get to 11/22/63, but by that point the damage was done. It’s a bit like saying “I really ought to give Beethoven a try, but those symphonies are so gosh darned long. Maybe I’ll try a piano etude.” You’re setting yourself up to fail.

Which would be perfectly all right, if Allen was content to say, “this isn’t for me,” and walk away. Instead, he loudly protests that he’s not really a snob about this stuff, when he pretty obviously is. Thus, we’re no longer dealing in matters of taste, but in metaphysical battles of quality. Any doubt is wiped away in the last paragraph:
My son, George, who is now twenty-four, read a little King in high school, but he hasn’t gone back to him since then. After you’ve read Roberto Bolaño and Denis Johnson and David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon, as my son has, why would you return to Stephen King? King may be an adequate enough escape from life, if that’s all you require from a book of fiction, but his work (or what I’ve read of it) is a far cry from literature, which, at its best, is, sentence by sentence, a revelation about life.
See, unlike you, dear reader of genre fiction (or, horror of horrors, purveyor of it!), George has evolved to a higher state of being. He no longer reads for the joy of it, but only to uncover revealed truths about life. He is, along with his father, a better class of human than the rest of us.

Buried deep in the piece, we find that Allen’s problem with King may stem from the fact that King tends to write genre fiction. We can assume Allen is not a fan:
I dabbled in science fiction, if Stanislaw Lem and Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood can be counted as science fiction writers.
Oh, yes, why would an author whose best known work is about scientists exploring a distant planet that appears to be sentient qualify as “science fiction?” Or whose best known work involves time travel and alien abductions? Or even one whose best known work is a vivid portrayal of the kind of dystopian theocracy that seems to shape so many modern right-wing fantasies? As I’ve written before, it’s sci-fi, deal with it.

I think that, at bottom, is what wound me up so much about Allen’s critique and others like it. As a genre writer myself, I’d like to think that anyone reading my stuff doesn’t give it two strikes out of the gate just because of that fact. If it’s not your thing, that’s fine. Just don’t shit on others for whom it is. Or worse, try to redefine the stuff you can’t avoid liking as something that it’s not.

Besides, if you only read stuff that is “sentence by sentence, a revelation about life” how do you get around in the world? Aren’t you too busy being transformed to actually, you know, work for a living?

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