Bloom v. King

Harold Bloom, recently derided as a self-appointed guardian of American literature, has made known his displeasure over the decision of the National Book Foundation to give their annual award to Stephen King.

His contention is that King is getting the award for nothing more than the commercial power of his works. He also takes the time to make potshots at Harry Potter, making light of King’s comment that J.K. Rowling readers grow up to become King readers by drawing a line not unlike the one that leads from marijuana to heroin.

Bloom also wanders a little, taking time to attack the writing in the Potter books while ignoring King’s, which is as sloppy as he claims Rowling’s is (having never read Rowling, I won’t comment here – but King is sloppy and bloated, as I’ve noted before).

Bloom is the kind of blowhard that I usually ignore, but I can’t help thinking he’s right about King not deserving the award. The problem is, Bloom is right for the wrong reason.

If they’re awarding the prize to King for his prowess as a commercial force, then blow off Bloom and hand the man a new paperweight. Then give Rowling the award next year; she’s on track to become the world’s first billionaire author (or, as Bloom contends, give it to commercial juggernaut Danielle Steele).

But if Bloom’s central thesis is correct – that the award is for literary excellence – then King has no business darkening the door. He could tell a good story when he was hungry, but even then his tricks and contraptions were just that. They worked, to be sure, but after a certain point the go-for-the-gross-out-if-nothing-else works, the constant brand name-dropping, and the breathless prose that OVEREMPHASIZES!!! EVERYTHING!!! LIKE!!! THIS!!! wears thin.

Plus, did the book committee that decided to hand Mr. King this award stop to think what kind of acceptance speech they’re going to get? “I haven’t been this surprised since I used poison ivy leaves as toilet paper! And let me tell you…”

I once saw King on C-SPAN 2’s weekend “Book TV,” giving a speech before a convention of teachers in Maine. His hair was a mess, he wore a black T-shirt and jeans, and he haltingly read his speech from the pages of a binder. Very disappointing, given the professional nature of the venue (in King’s defense, this could have been at the height of his cocaine addiction, when the only thing he would have cared about was more White Lady to Hoover up his nose).

If the National Book Foundation wants to recognize a commercially successful writer while maintaining their airs of literary excellence, King is the wrong choice. They should have looked to someone like Elmore Leonard, who takes the hardboiled thriller to a totally new level with his brilliant writing style and his realistic expect-the-unexpected way of plotting. Or how about Richard Price? His novel Clockers alone is worthy of notice as a Great American Novel, and he’s also had success with… *gasp!* screenplays such as The Color of Money.

Leonard and Price are both better suggestions than Bloom’s own ideas for alternate prizewinners. Two of the three he mentions – Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon – are brain hemorrhagingly difficult to read. They’re the sort of authors that professors inflict upon upper level lit students to humble them. I haven’t tried to read the third, Cormac McCarthy, so I withhold comment there. But if the company Bloom keeps him in is any indication, a hat trick is in the offing.

The odd thing is, while I disagree with the choice, there’s a part of me that delights in seeing King get this award. It’s going to make him a member of the circle that has done nothing but deride popular fiction for decades – his own work included. Personally, I hope their next banquet puts him in a seat next to John (“I have no use for science fiction unless it happens to be a science-fiction-like novel that I happen to have written”) Updike.

Watch out, National Book Foundation. You done made Bubba a member of the country club now.

And Steve… Steve, old boy! Mind if I load that shotgun up with rock salt and nails for you?

NP – Technicolor Web Of Sound Internet Radio.


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