Sunday, November 19, 2006

Stephen King on a desert island

Stephen King was on Desert Island Discs this morning. I always like listening to writers and artists on that show. In this case I just hoped, for a change, that the straw man about his work and literary snobs would not be wheeled out. Within the first few minutes Kirsty Young edged toward the barn by asking King if he resented the "horror" label which might "stop people who might otherwise enjoy" his books from reading them. He did, kinda. Of course "book" is also a label. That might put off even more people.

Then she rushed for the straw by wondering why unnamed snobs should resent him getting a national book award even though he'd sold millions and (so it follows) got more people reading. I can't remember King's reply. He may have just shrugged. Anyway, it occurred to me then, more than ever, that such wondering is based on the assumption that reading is an incontrovertibly good thing, and that those who disapprove of Stephen King's work hold that opinion too (thereby appearing hypocritical and churlish). What this good is exactly is never addressed. Yet as I've pointed out before, it's quite simple to show how reading just anything isn't necessarily a good thing.

This is not to say reading King is a bad thing. Not at all. What I'm saying is that those who defend novels on such non-literary grounds are more preoccupied with appealing to "a higher platitude of, supposed, superior existence through Literature or Art" - an appeal loathed by Lee Rourke in a recent interview - than those who want simply to explain why writers like Stephen King cannot be compared with certain other great writers; a purely literary explanation. The moment one presents reading novels as more worthwhile than staring blankly at a wall, one has to define that worth, perhaps particularly if at the same time you proudly decline the "literary" worth of any particular (bestselling) novelist.

If you're like me and it's only enjoyment you seek from books (no, I'm not kidding), you might assume Stephen King's novels are right up your street. Millions seem to enjoy them. But "enjoyment" is just a label. To be shared, it has to be unpacked. Otherwise it remains a cliché, the sort of thing you'll find filling Stephen King novels.


  1. Anonymous10:30 pm

    >"Otherwise it remains a cliché, the sort of thing you'll >find filling Stephen King novels."

    Have you read any books by Stephen King? He may sell millions of books, but he's also an excellent writer, who certainly does not deal in cliches.

  2. LOL. You're obviously rather too deeply into fantasy.

    I've read him - my ex-flatmate had innumerable brick-size books with his name on. Never finished one though.

    But you know, it isn't necessarily a criticism of anyone's work that it contains clichés. Evidentally I touched a nerve. Bernhard uses them liberally - but he destabilises them. King relies on them as a foundation. Have you read any books by Thomas Bernhard?



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