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.