I stumbled upon an old opinion piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books, My Stephen King Problem: A Snob’s Notes, by Dwight Allen. As a fan of King since adolescence I started reading the article with an admittedly biased viewpoint against the writer’s premise, but a I continued I had to give credence to some of his points. King can be formulaic; some of his characters are stereo-typed and yes there is a fair amount of “popcorn film” schlock in many of his works. But when one has written as much as King I would venture to guess these occurrences are bound to pop up. Allen doesn’t begrudge King his success, but he does have a problem with the recent trend of critics claiming that King’s work can be seen as literary.
For Allen, literary fiction takes on a decidedly elitist persona and he just can’t see how a genre writer can also be literary. First, let’s establish what exactly literary fiction is. To be considered literary, a work must be critically acclaimed, or serious; it is often a complex, multi-layered work that deals with universal dilemmas.
If this is our accepted definition of literary fiction, then I fail to see how some of King’s better works do not fit. The Shining is a multi-layered novel that deals with the universal implications of alcoholism; that it does this through the prism of a horror story should not negate it’s seriousness. However, I think the problem Allen really has with King has more to do with his own post modernism than it does with the fact that King is a genre writer.
Postmodern literature is commonly filled with internal irony and word play, it tends not to conclude with the neatly tied-up ending, but often parodies it. Postmodern writers like to emphasize chance over craft, and use metafiction to undermine the writer’s authority. Books like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest are often held up as examples of this style. Reading Allen’s article it seems for him that all literary fiction must be post modern fiction. While I have nothing against post modernism as a style, to claim it as the sole heir of the title literary is simply inaccurate.
Ursula Le Guin, who has written on the topic of literary fiction and genre fiction extensively, has this to say-which seems to me most sensible:
The trouble with the Litfic vs Genre idea is that what looks like a reasonable distinction of varieties of fiction always hides a value judgment: Lit superior, Genre inferior. Sticking in a middle category of Good Bad Books is no help. You might just as well make another one, Bad Good Books, which everybody could fill at their whim — mine would contain a whole lot of Booker Prize winners and, yes, definitely, The Death of Virgil — but it’s just a parlor game.
Some things have to happen before there can be more intelligent discussion of what literature is. And some of them are in fact happening, at last. It’s good to see that Mr Krystal can laugh at Edmund Wilson, if only at a safe distance. English departments have largely given up trying to defend their ivied or ivory towers by shooting down every space ship that approaches. Critics are ever more clearly aware that a lot of literature is happening outside the sacred groves of modernist realism. But still the opposition of literature and genre is maintained; and as long as it is, false categorical value judgment will cling to it, with the false dichotomy of virtuous pleasure and guilty pleasure
Allen, however much he protests to the contrary, is simply inserting his personal tastes for his own definition of what is good writing. While he enjoys the ironic twists and multiple shades of grey that a post modernist novel provides, others prefer the more black and white quality of a good genre novel. As the world gets more and more complex, with the ground ever shifting beneath us, many readers want the assurances of a clear winner and loser. Irony falls flat when real ambiguity is an everyday occurrence.
I find the self admitted elitist, liberal critic’s views on art to be akin to his compatriot’s political and cultural views as well. Just as a insular cabal of leftist political commentators simply cannot understand where a conservative comes from on a given issue, just as a militant atheist cannot comprehend a believer’s faith, a post modern literary critic does not get quality genre fiction. It is all one of a piece.
The larger issue in all of this is that of exposure. Too often we all live in our own echo chamber, and all this does is inoculate us against any viewpoint that may deviate from our internal scripts. The internet offers a real chance at breaking down these walls, be they intellectual, societal or simply ones of taste. But that potential will remain dormant if we only read and watch those who are in agreement with us.