Dan Green of The Reading Experience does not like Stephen King. I’ve read this before, in fact, according to Google, it is the 24th time that he or one of his readers call upon Stephen to discuss the strengths of literary merit. Every time someone displays a patronizingly superior attitude towards Stephen King, my nobrow instincts rise up and I feel the snobbishness as if it was directed towards me. In his latest post Dan even goes so far to say that “film adaptations of [Stephen] King’s fiction such as Brian De Palma‘s Carrie and David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone are infinitely superior to the novels on which they’re based, which in my opinion don’t rise above the level of poorly written, sub-gothic trash. (There, I’ve said it.)”
This is probably the first time I’ve read in a highbrow literary blog that a film is superior to the novel and it is of course — at least with reference to The Dead Zone and Carrie –, pure bollocks (there, I said it.). But at the same time I can understand Dan’s position. For example, I’d love to be able to watch the 1967 film adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, rather than reading it.
But I wonder: why do I defend Stephen King? I defend him because I used to be an avid reader of King and because he writes in the tradition of the “limit experience”. The tradition of transgressive fiction. He writes about states of the human condition which transcend the everyday life. He makes you curious of what life can and can’t be about.
Now is a good time to be a bit more specific about the nobrow concept. Frank McLynn will come to my aid. He calls Kingsley Amis a phoney because he maintains that: “[it is] impossible to enjoy and appreciate Westerns, film noir or private-eye fiction of the Raymond Chandler kind and acknowledged literary heavyweights like Melville, Conrad, Dostoevsky and Zola.”
But is Kingsley Amis really a phoney because he feels that?
Being nobrow is about knowing the entire corpus of literature. If you only know two colors, let’s say green and blue, you can’t call yourself an expert on colors. Likewise, if you only know highbrow literature, you can hardly call yourself an expert on literature or literary merit. The first thing you need to know when you claim to have any taste at all, is the corpus. And this is indeed the big paradox of the nobrow position. You can only call yourself nobrow if you know the corpus of both high and low culture. And then you have to make your own choices. If you only know high culture, you are not nobrow. If you only know low culture, you are not nobrow. In practice, this means, that for being a nobrow person, you come from the highbrow position.
This, however, does not mean that I am against a canon of sorts. Being in education, I recognize the need for a canon, for a curriculum. And I suppose that we all want to define our own literary canons. And my plea is include King in the 20th century literary canon, just as we’ve included Bram Stoker from the 19th literary canon and Sade from that of the 18th century. Please do not exclude literature from the canon on grounds of its content.
I’m not saying that Dan and other Stephen King bashers despise Stephen King’s books solely on the basis of their content (otherwise critics such as Dan wouldn’t like the films based on his novels), but I do get the feeling that most of this rejection is for a large measure based on content related rather than style related criteria.
Which reminds me of Susan Sontag’s On Style:
It would be hard to find any reputable literary critic today who would care to be caught defending as an idea the old antithesis of style versus content. On this issue a pious consensus prevails. … In the practice of criticism, though, the old antithesis lives on, virtually unassailed. Most of the same critics who disclaim, in passing, the notion that style is an accessory to content maintain the duality whenever they apply themselves to particular works of literature. … Many critics appear not to realize this. They think themselves sufficiently protected by a theoretical disclaimer on the vulgar filtering-off of style from content, all the while their judgments continue to reinforce precisely what they are, in theory, eager to deny.