Pop vs. Literary, Round 1

Stephen King’s acceptance speech upon winning the 2003 Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award from the National Book Foundation is a good read for a number of reasons. First, it’s interesting to hear from him some details of his early writing career and the support he received from his wife. We should all be so lucky to have the strong, unwavering belief of someone close to us, to give us the gentle nudges we need and keep us turned toward our words rather than toward our grievances. I am that lucky, and I hope you are too.
Second, it’s nice motivation. He had to write, a lot, and then write some more to get to the point that he is today. It’s good to remember that the writers you read, the one whose book is in your hands right now, have their moments of doubt, of lack of faith in themselves or the world, and that they have to muscle through those doubts, just like you. I go through it. Years ago doubt washed over me to the point that I couldn’t write. I’ve since learned that no one cares if I write or not (other than my wife) and that if I don’t do it the only one to hurt is me. I’ve learned that putting my head down and doing the work is what matters, not accolades or publishing contracts. I’ve written a lot lately, much of it is, I think, very good and I’m pleased with it. One of those is the “Endless Hours” contest entry (see below) which started out as a fun exercise and now lurks in the back of my brain as a possible beginning to a longer piece, a rough sketch that I’d like to flesh out. I got that short piece done because I’ve been doing the work, not because of divine inspiration or luck. I put my pen to paper daily, and I feel it working and I’m happy for it. King’s speech reminds me of that: put in the time.
Finally, I liked King’s motive behind the speech which is to herald the talents of “popular” writers. The National Book Award, as so many awards, are given to “important”, “serious”, and “challenging” work. It’s the reason that comedies don’t win Oscars, leading Jack Black and Will Ferrell to do their anti-dramatic actor song and dance at the Academy Awards this year. King’s speech is his version of that:

Now, there are lots of people who will tell you that anyone who writes genre fiction or any kind of fiction that tells a story is in it for the money and nothing else. It’s a lie. The idea that all storytellers are in it for the money is untrue but it is still hurtful, it’s infuriating and it’s demeaning. I never in my life wrote a single word for money. As badly as we needed money, I never wrote for money. From those early days to this gala black tie night, I never once sat down at my desk thinking today I’m going to make a hundred grand. Or this story will make a great movie. If I had tried to write with those things in mind, I believe I would have sold my birthright for a plot of message, as the old pun has it. Either way, Tabby and I would still be living in a trailer or an equivalent, a boat. My wife knows the importance of this award isn’t the recognition of being a great writer or even a good writer but the recognition of being an honest writer.

King goes on the ask that other popular writers be remembered, that they be honestly critiqued and considered. He’s right, they should be. Without popular art most people would have no “in” to art at all, and to discount works of authors (or any artists) which sell well and are easily accessed and enjoyed is to discount all writing. In fact, it’s a bit of a short-sighted argument, to say that (Insert Popular Author Here) is “simplistic,” or “formulaic,” or “derivative.” If that’s what they are, then might not your own writing be overly complex? Dense? Obfuscating?
There are so many words, and so many ways to order them, but there’s only so much to time to read them and people make the choice to read that should be celebrated, not derided.
(Publisher’s Disclaimer: Sean Ferrell has been known to read Stephen King and to enjoy him. He also enjoys the occassional Star Wars or Star Trek novel, and enjoys crude, pedestrian “poop joke” humor.)

Leave a Reply