Stephen King got some consolation in the wake of Under the Dome’s cancellation with the announcement that he’ll be awarded a National Medal of Arts at the White House next Thursday.
Variety reports that King and his fellow honorees will receive their medals from President Obama, a photo op that will likely soon be captioned by a million Twitter eggs with a lot of jokes about how if you really wanted to be scared you ought to get your head out of the sand and look into what really happened in Benghazi, or Obama’s birth certificate something something.
King, who has been neck-and-neck with the Bible for most books in print pretty much as long as I’ve been aware of books, deserves it. I think so. He’s one of those writers you can start with early and stay with as long as you’re picking up books. As a horror novelist with just the right amount of death and sex, King is promising the next step towards the world of adult books for readers ready for the deep end after they outgrow The Phantom Tollbooth. His backlog is diverse and seemingly endless. And he namechecks enough other writers in his own work that he’s an excellent gateway into noir and crime novels, the lurid stories of choice in MFA circles. Even if I didn’t already owe him for Pet Semetary, It, and Skeleton Crew, to name a few, I would his still second his recommendation to read John D. MacDonald’s End of Night. And the back half of King’s On Writing had at least as much to say about the mechanics of building a story as about anything my English teachers recommended.
King was given the National Book Awards Medal for distinguished contribution to American letters in 2003, and if history repeats itself, some self-important cultural gatekeepers will gleefully trash the Maine writer’s D.C. appearance. Before the National Book Awards ceremony, Yale professor Harold Bloom sniffed at King’s selection: “He is a man who writes what used to be called penny dreadfuls. That they could believe that there is any literary value there or any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy.” But Harold Bloom also ruined Blood Meridian for me because he writes a total spoiler of the book’s ending in his intro, which is like the first goddamn page, and which I have never forgiven him for, and so has an established track record of taking joy in ruining things for other people and therefore cannot be trusted as a reliable source on art. Also, his take on King’s list is supercilious and myopic, ignoring stories like The Last Rung on the Ladder, and The Shawshank Redemption, and The Body, all of which have something to say about how people live and do it well without any shadow of a supernatural boogie man.
Even if King only wrote about things that slither around in the attic, who cares? If anything, I’d say that would make him an even better writer than he’s getting credit for. To make a critical leap, I bet it’s easier to get readers to lower their guards enough to evoke emotion with a holocaust illiteracy drama than it is with a story about an alcoholic dad possessed by ghosts trying to beat his family to death with a mallet. Between this news and Wes Craven’s death, genre masters are getting a flash of critical re-evaluation this week, and I say we’re the better off for it.