Another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life," wrote Harold Bloom in the L.A. Times. Many in the publishing community agree. But others are thinking, "It's about time." The decision by the board of directors of the National Book Foundation to give Stephen King the 2003 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters has divided the publishing community like no previous board action. Whether King deserves this award is an important issue. Of even greater importance are the potential problems revealed by our responses to the board's decision: problems with some literary awards and, more urgently, with the reading choices of our community.
First, though: Does King deserve the award? At PW Forecasts, we take a catholic approach to books. We assume that literary excellence can arise in any type of book, whether thriller, literature in translation, children's board book, graphic novel, popular science, biography, cookbook, poetry, memoir. And so we have awarded starred reviews—our measure of excellence—to authors as diverse as David Macaulay, Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lehane, Robert Caro, Nigella Lawson, Isaac Bashevis Singer and, yes, to Stephen King, several times.
Please note that the medal is given, in the board's words, to "a person who has enriched our literary heritage over a life of service, or a corpus of work." There's little debate that King has enriched our literary heritage over a life of service; his charitable contributions to libraries, for example, are well known. Has he done the same with his corpus of work? That remains a matter of opinion, and my own is that our literary heritage has benefited markedly from the work of this master storyteller who not only modernized an entire genre—horror—but has given us such iconic characters as Carrie, Cujo and Christine the haunted car, and vastly entertained us while doing so.
But King is a genre writer and a commercial writer. And that may explain much of the upset. It's no secret that the publishing community generally accords genre and commercial fiction second-class status. (We do the same with vast areas of nonfiction, and perhaps with children's books as a whole, but for brevity's sake, this discussion is limited to adult fiction.) A look at the winners of the awards given by the National Book Foundation and the National Book Critics Circle during the past several decades bears this out. No genre author—and no author considered to be primarily a commercial writer—has ever won a "Best" from either body (true, in 1980, a short-lived expanded NBA awards list gave John D. MacDonald an award for best mystery). Even nominations for such authors are rare. This year's National Book Award nominations for Fiction continue the neglect. The five nominees are all worthy, but are all of a type: "literary fiction." Is it possible that Tony Hillerman deserves to be on the list? Or Tananarive Due? George Pelecanos or Margaret Maron? Peter Straub?
It's usually only at the end of their lives or beyond that great genre writers are recognized as great writers: Hammett, say, or Heinlein, or Lovecraft or Chandler. Yes, the literary community has now recognized King, and in 1999 the board gave the same award to Ray Bradbury. Every once in a while, a genre writer is elevated from the pack and bestowed with literary status. It happened to Ross Macdonald, more recently to Elmore Leonard, and it is happening to King.
Literary awards rightfully go to authors of great books—works of originality, lasting power and beauty. Yet literature, even great literature, surfaces in genre just as in "literary fiction." But many of us are unfamiliar with genre, because we don't read it (one wonders how many of those who object to the King medal, including Bloom, have read King's work thoroughly); nor do many of us read, much less study, the bestselling commercial authors. And that may be a serious problem for our industry: because what publishing professionals read by choice differs from what the book-buying public reads.
That observation is based on years of conversations I've had with publishing professionals, and it is, admittedly, a very broad observation. And it is true that publishing is in part a niche industry, calling for knowledge of specialized markets, and that literary excellence may thrive equally in books that sell poorly and in books that sell well. Even so, it's significant that many publishing professionals, when asked what they read, cite "literature" rather than commercial or genre fiction—a new book by T.C. Boyle, say, rather than one by the much better selling Michael Crichton. This preference manifests in the mainstream literary awards, the great majority of which, of course, are given by publishing professionals.
Perhaps one reason the publishing industry is enjoying only slow growth is that we do not listen closely enough to the market, because we read too far apart from the mainstream of the market. I'm not suggesting that we publish only commercial or genre fiction, or that we forgo reading literary fiction—rather, that we learn more about what our market wants by studying (reading) what it wants. Information is power, and therefore I suggest that it's important not only to read widely, no matter what one's niche, but that it's incumbent upon us, as it is upon professionals within any industry, to understand through personal experience our top-selling products.
Any doubt that a gap exists between the reading habits of publishing pros and those of the general public can be dispelled with a simple test. The adult fiction authors most widely read in the past two decades—that is, the authors who have sold the most books—probably have been Nora Roberts, Dean Koontz, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steel, John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark, Michael Crichton and Stephen King. And then there's the fresher crop of blockbuster commercial authors like Michael Connelly, David Baldacci, Laurell K. Hamilton and Jan Karon. How many books by each of these authors have we read? If the number is few or none, perhaps it would be wise to read more of them, in order to understand, to appreciate and even to learn to love what so much of our market loves.
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