Despite some criticism that his selection tarnishes the literary tradition of the award, the decision by the National Book Foundation to present Stephen King with its 2003 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters has been met with a largely positive response from the book industry.
The medal was created in 1988 to honor an American author whose body of work has enriched the literary landscape; the last two winners were Philip Roth and Arthur Miller. Deborah Wiley, senior v-p at Wiley and chairman of the NBF, said that in selecting King, the foundation was honoring him for his wide-ranging contributions to books and reading as well as for his body of work. "I was really swayed by his philanthropy," Wiley said.
In keeping with that philanthropic spirit, King will return the cash award to the NBF to be used in the foundation's outreach programs. King said winning the award "is probably the most exciting thing to happen to me in my career as a writer since the sale of my first book in 1973."
Other board members said King is a deserving winner because he has had a major impact on American letters and his selection represents an effort by the foundation to have the award reflect the breadth of American literature.
Reaction from other corners of the industry took a similar tone. "I simply want to congratulate [the NBF] on choosing one of America's most important authors for this award," said one author and editor. A British novelist and teacher said, "King revived a moribund genre and has provided enjoyment to millions. He richly deserves the award."
A number of comments expressed frustration with the old—some say contrived—distinction between literary and commercial authors. "Many writers, myself included, must make a living from their work. I appreciate [the NBF's] recognition that the popularity of a writer's work does not necessarily imply it lacks literary worth," said one author.
King will receive his award at the NBA dinner November 19. This year's ceremonies will be hosted by author Walter Mosley.