02 August 2004

"Artistic Merit" and Stephen King

Matt Peckham's new essay on Stephen King's Dark Tower books is one of the best pieces of criticism I've read in quite some time. It's the start of a series Matt will be doing on each of the books, as well as some of the peripheral works (he has just posted a draft on Salem's Lot). One passage I particularly liked was the following:
It seems a bit shortsighted to me, to imply that the relationship between art and the public at large is a one-way street, that the responsibility for its reception as either sugar-coated and likable or barbed and unsettling lies with the author alone, and not the reader, a piece of the equation I think too easily and often dismissed based on a sweeping and pretentious generalization about the level of sophistication of the so-called masses. Besides, subversion alone is hardly a qualifier of artistic merit. Revolutionaries tend merely to replace what they've overthrown with their own brand of dogmatism, their own rituals of inclusion and exclusion.
The term "artistic merit" is a difficult one, as Matt astutely shows in his post. We do not live in a culture with only one definition of "artistic merit", nor do I think many people would want to, because such a culture would likely be stagnant, unsurprising, unimaginative. It's fun to have opinions about art, and valuable, at least intellectually, for people to argue about what is or isn't good art, and to defend their positions, but it is dangerous to develop knee-jerk reactions to types of writing, or any other art form, for that matter, because such reactions lead too easily to hard-and-fast standards, and art is too subjective a realm to be beaten into shape by thugs brandishing narrow and exclusive rules.

On the other hand, to say "if you like it, it's good" is a criterion only useful when recommending a book to somebody, not when discussing what it is that makes books worth reading. If a discussion is going to rise above purely personal preferences, then there have to be some standards for the discussion to rest on. Disagreements about standards are useful, actually, because when people disagree and make a careful case for their point of view, the discussion can be illuminating, creating a dialectic that at the very least shows different ways types of books can be appreciated. When people don't support their point of view with anything other than, "So-and-so is a good writer/bad writer", the discussion becomes little more than "I like it, therefore it is good".

I hope the literary world -- a tiny world, we mustn't forget -- isn't as clearly broken into two camps as Linton Weeks suggests in a Washington Post article about the controversy sparked by Stephen King's National Book Award. King unfortunately fell into the trap Harold Bloom prepared for him, issuing broad generalizations to castigate his audience. What I'd hoped he would point out -- because, as Danse Macabre proved, he can be an occasionally insightful critic -- is that there are different ways of reading and valuing books, and perhaps there is some overlap within the standards those different ways of reading assume.

Matt Peckham has begun to show what some of those overlaps may be, just as Elizabeth Hand did in a 1999 Village Voice review of King's Hearts In Atlantis. There's no requirement to agree with everything Peckham and Hand say about King, but both offer specific insights that can be thought about, discussed, and expanded, helping readers see a writer in a way they might not have before.

I made a comment in a post a few weeks ago that some people seized on -- and I think they did so rightly, because I should have been more clear and less bellicose. Here's the comment:
Anyone who is incapable of seeing a qualitative difference between Shakespeare and H.G. Wells -- never mind Shakespeare and Stephen King -- has not developed any sort of aesthetic judgment other than "Imaginary islands are cool." If you like Wells or King more than Shakespeare, that's your business, but you shouldn't expect to be taken very seriously by anyone who has spent much time considering the merits of various works of literature any more than I should be taken seriously if I say I can't tell the difference between one Division One college basketball team or another. All such games are equally entertaining to me, because I don't know enough about the game to be able to discern the difference between competent, good, great, and genius-level playing. (And basketball's easier than aesthetics in that it, at least, has clear statistics and scores.)
I thought when I wrote it that it was clear I was making a statement purely about aesthetics, that is, about the style, the structure, etc., and was doing so at the level of the highest human accomplishments with literature. Reading it now, I'm annoyed by the passage, because it's missing some vital qualifiers in the second sentence, and that verb "like" is dangerous. I think a good argument can be made that King is not particularly notable aesthetically compared to quite a few writers of the past and present, but to read Stephen King for aesthetics is to miss many of the things that are notable in his work: his knack for portraying the psyche of a certain part of contemporary American culture (which he does, I think, far better than a number of contemporary novelists who have been lauded for doing exactly that), his ability when he is writing at his best to create tremendous narrative momentum, his ability to evoke rural American settings that feel half like home-grown myths and half like reality, etc. I don't, personally, think too many of his works stand up to multiple, careful readings, but Matt Peckham shows that some of them do, and combining that quality with the others I mentioned shows King has some value for literature other than for purely sociological and historical interest (for more on this distinction, see Dan Green's post on "Literary Realism" -- tangentially, the description at the end by Richard Chase of Frank Norris could apply to Stephen King: "...he wrote books that departed from realism by becoming in a unified act of the imagination at once romances and naturalistic novels.")

A difference critics should note more often is the difference between writers who have much to offer their own culture and writers who have much to offer future generations. These are not mutually exclusive categories, certainly, nor do they need to be value judgments in and of themselves. We need immediate art as much as we need art for posterity. An example I fall back to often is Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart, which I don't think is a particularly fine example of a play (too melodramatic, too manipulative), but which was an important social and cultural force at the time it premiered, a lightning rod for arguments the world desperately needed (Richard Goldstein offered some perspective on all that changed, and didn't change, in the world from The Normal Heart's premiere to its recent revival). To judge The Normal Heart on purely aesthetic terms would be to miss its real contributions to various cultures, from the culture of American theatre to gay male culture to 1980s culture to...

Any critic who tries to speak for posterity suffers a grandiose delusion, because history shows that what ends up being valued by multiple generations is often not what was valued by the artist's contemporary world. There are definitely exceptions, just as there are science fiction stories that have accurately predicted future trends or technologies. It doesn't make much sense to say that because a writer is popular, therefore they are good, nor does it make much sense to say that because a writer has difficulty getting published, therefore they must be the equal of Emily Dickinson or Franz Kafka. There are many reasons for popularity, just as there are many reasons for a lack of popularity, and sales figures should be kept in the marketing department, not trotted out to support or condemn a writer. When writing about contemporary works of art, works which may or may not survive some sort of test of time (we'll never know!), good critics make clear what aspects of a work they value or disdain, being careful to avoid too many categorical judgments. The best critics show us how to look again at a work of art, how to value or disdain what we might previously have ignored, and Matt Peckham has done just this with Stephen King.

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