The writosphere is aflutter after Stephen King said, in an interview with USA Weekend: “The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.”
After some further thoughts on Erle Stanley Gardner (King: “terrible”), Jodi Picoult (good), Dean Koontz (good and bad) and James Patterson (bad), King said further:
“People are attracted by the stories, by the pace and in the case of Stephenie Meyer, it’s very clear that she’s writing to a whole generation of girls and opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books. It’s exciting and it’s thrilling and it’s not particularly threatening because they’re not overtly sexual. A lot of the physical side of it is conveyed in things like the vampire will touch her forearm or run a hand over skin, and she just flushes all hot and cold. And for girls, that’s a shorthand for all the feelings that they’re not ready to deal with yet.”
The whole situation is not without its irony. After Stephen King won a National Book Foundation award for “distinguished contribution” to American letters (and surely books as well), the critic/professor Harold Bloom wrote in the Boston Globe:
“What [King] is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis. The publishing industry has stooped terribly low…”
Aside from putting books in the news, which, hi, doesn’t happen very often, this whole spat raises some interesting questions. Or rather one interesting question: who decides what is good anyway?
Is it the readers? After all, if Meyer is so successful she has to be doing something right. And in this world of American Idol, everyone fancies themselves an expert. But surely there is some difference between commercial success and artistic merit, right? Are we ready to crown the most successful books the “best” books?
Is it the critics? Should we leave “good” to the people who devote themselves to sifting through the books and movies and decide what’s good and bad? Surely there’s something to be said for expertise, right?
Is it the writers? Who knows better than the people who are actually writing the books, right? Or do they?
Is it the scholars? Yesterday’s potboilers are today’s classics. Yesterday’s drivel is today’s unappreciated genius.
What do you think?
Thanks, Joe, I was starting to feel stupid, and I have always been considered very intelligent. I do like some difficult books also, but I don’t pick them for that reason. I never thought that as necessary for a good read.
Says Anon 9:27-
“One of the worst things happening in public discourse about the arts is that there appears to be an attempt to bring criticism down to the level of mere opinion, with the further claim that everyone’s opinion is equal, and that all opinion is “just opinion” and nobody’s opinion is more valid than another’s.
This false conflation of criticism with opinion and the misguided egalitarianism in which it’s wrapped is leading to the death of informed criticism, which is being drowned in a sea of uninformed opinion.”
“Criticism,” professional criticism, is nothing more lofty than someone injecting themselves into a conversation, one they were not invited to join, to tell a given artist their unrequested opinion on what the artist did wrong or right.
The world that rejected Van Gogh during his lifetime was just as correct in their rejection as the subsequent generations were in their embrace. The latter supplants the former but it does not invalidate it.
There is no single brass ring that every artist tries for and no set scale by which anyone can judge how close they got to grabbing.
EVERY critic’s opinion is equal to every other’s. And, if the “professional” critic didn’t buy the book with their own money before venting their spleen, that opinion is actually less valid than those of the the unwashed prols who plunked down their cash for a taste.
Critics have no value in the making of art and their only real power comes in who they can impede or destroy with a well placed word. Critical praise doesn’t make literature. Time and the masses do. That’s us, folks. Us folks.
Of all the parasites who make their livings off the relationship between artist and audience the professional critic is the most loathsome.
Agents at least serve a quantifiable purpose that can be graded empirically. Publishers are simply in it for the cash ratios. Critics risk nothing, spend nothing and ultimately achieve nothing but the furthering of the hierarchies and social polarizations that keep them employed.
Professional critics are the literary equivalent of cancerous boils that, sadly, can never be lanced or excised.
Nathan Bransford says
I guess anon is coming down with the “scholars.”
I think your question, Nathan, goes to the heart of what is troubling about the publishing climate now. Publishing houses appear to be going to authors that sell (blockbusters) as determined by sales and authors’ reputations. An awful lot of mediocre stuff is published when they rely on those two standards.
What’s good is such a subjective decision (assuming the author can put together a decent sentence to begin with). Some readers enjoy character-driven works, others prefer a well-pace exciting story, others like to languish in terrific use of the English language. But they’re the ones who buy the books, so readers’ inut is important. they express thier vote with their wallets. I value other writers’ opinions, but they are subjective as well. In short, I agree that all of the groups mentioned in your post should be taken into account. Unfortunately, the economically-impacted publishing world is taking the easy way out, and that does not necessary mean that good books are being published. And what will happen when the blockbuster authors are no longer writing? There will be few who are able to step in to take their places if new authors have a difficult time being published, unless they do it themselves.
My personal opinion of the matter is that Stephen King has always targeted a certain age group for his books, they have always been of a certain genre. Whereas Stephenie Meyer targeted a younger age but was able to pull in readers of all age groups. I have always been a fan of King but I noticed that whenever he tried to write something that fell out of his usual genre, it never came out well. I have to say I’m happy to see teens walking around with a novel instead of a cell phone stuck in their hands.
Erin Jade Lange says
ugh. not that anyone will notice my correction, but i have to say i meant “on the road” not “the road”
my apologies to both kerouac and mccarthy fans.
It is interesting to hear that comment from King given that the same has so often been said of him. Over and over he repeats the conversation he had with Amy Tan about how reviewers and people at conferences never comment on “the language” of their writing. I think this suggests that there are books we read for “language,” and I guess people call those “literary,” and there are books we read for story–more plot driven. But there are plenty of writers who pull both together quite successfully a lot of the time. A good example is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping: plot, language, great characters. Then came Gilead. I know it won a Pulitzer or something, but I kept falling asleep while reading it. Language isn’t enough for me. I just finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I guess is considered a “genre” novel. I don’t care how it’s classified–it was an all around great read. I know all kinds of people who read both Meyer and King (just King for me) who would be surprised that King had been so judgmental. But they probably aren’t paying any attention to the kerfluffle. They are just reading books they love!
Katrina Stonoff says
I don’t think we can decide what is “good.” That only gets decided in the long run.
“Good” books are the ones people are still reading and still buying and still talking about fifty years later. Some of those will be books that were blockbusters. Some of those will be books that only sold a few thousand copies at first, but which continued to sell and never went out of print. Some will be books we consider literary, and some will be books we dismiss as commercial.
It’s great fun to predict *which* books will have staying power, but at best, it’s still only an educated guess.
It is ironic that King calls someone else’s writing poor. The man deserves credit for his productivity and work ethic, but he’s not a good writer. (Yes, I’ve read some of his novels, all the way through.) I like and dislike the same writers he’s mentioned over the years, but the only reason he’s popular is that he writes horror.
As at least one other commenter noted, his books are seriously lacking in editing. I assume either he refuses to be edited, or editors are afraid to change anything he turns in. Yeesh, he’s longwinded and boring. (Exception: his __On Writing__)
No thinking person claims that popularity equals quality.
Matthew Canova says
I watch any movies remotely relating to dance… that doesn’t mean that the movies are good, just that I enjoy the content. I enjoyed the Twilight books but found her writing style to be horrific. I agree with Stephen King and I do think his analysis has merit.
It’s all opinion, and that’s worth whatever it’s worth. I haven’t read Meyer and don’t want to, but I also haven’t been able to make it very far in a King novel since I was about 13. And I like horror. I’ve enjoyed some of his short stories, though.
Zen of Writing says
The only reason Harold Bloom even has a job was that there was little competition for academic jobs in his day. If he had to compete in the same marketplace as the people he criticizes, he’d be toast. A fortunate man, who thinks he is talented. King is not perfect, but he is talented and hardworking and deserves his success.
I watched my non-reading ten-year-old niece establish herself on my sofa for three days with the seventh Harry Potter. She’s been a committed reader ever since.
As a writer of crime fiction, if I could get half the suspense and surprise into my work that Rowling creates, I’d be delighted.
As a fan of children’s literature, I was looking foward to reading Meyer. I was disappointed. Meyer is a good storyteller and I was compelled to finish the book, but it reminded me of reading Jeffrey Archer. You have to finish the book but you really wish you didn’t. With Rowling, you have to finish the book and you wish it would never end.
Here’s a little something from “Reading: An Essay” by W. H. Auden on the relationship between reader and critic:
“What is the function of a critic? So far as I am concerned, he can do me one or more of the following services:
1) Introduce me to authors or works of which I was hitherto unaware.
2) Convince me that I have undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough.
3) Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures which I could never have seen for myself because I do not know enough and never shall.
4) Give a “reading” of a work which increases my understanding of it.
5) Throw light upon the process of artistic “Making.”
6) Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.
The first three of these services demand scholarship. A scholar is not merely someone whose knowledge is extensive; the knowledge must be of value to others.”
What about genre? Meyer and Rowling are writing to a specific audience, regardless of their works’ broader appeal. Can you really compare Sweet Valley High to The Beautiful and the Damned? How about some relativity here.
And rather than the carping and negativity, what about a baseline of recognition that no matter what the book is, the simple act of completing the book and getting it to market is an achievement of will and endurance that deserves recognition. King has written in the past how he wrote Cujo in a haze of cocaine and alcohol in a way that seems like a veiled compliment to himself. He seems to have some powerful insecurities that make him assert himself in harshly critical ways. His judgment (for me) is always suspect.
I think that an author doesn’t have to be a particularly spectacular author to make it on the best sellers list; s/he just has to tell a good story. Stephenie Meyer may not be the best author of all time, but she’s managed to tell a good story. Same goes for anyone else.
Rajani's Place says
If you want to re-read the book after a gap, it moves beyond the realms of just another good book. A ‘good’ book is definitely a page-turner which keeps you engaged…but a great book stays with you for days. Who decides what’s good and what’s great…well it’s a lot to do with individual taste, but market sales cannot be the only indicator, it has to stand the test of time – with the readers and also the writer!
I’ve read all of steph’s books.(I like fantasy, it’s a light escape) I was not impresssed! Yes, they are intended for a younger audiance, but at the same time all she ever says is how she has fans of ALL ages, even seniors. I do think JK is a far better writer, character developer, and story teller (Is that not a given??). I get that respect should be paid, because tweens keep coming back, and they aren’t the best group when attempting to keep thier attention. And yes, she writes 1000 page books, but just because they’re long, popular, and bestselling, does not always make them great. Roald Dahl, CS Lewis, JK-They’re great! Steph has a long way to go!
TEAM KING–and I’ve seen more movies based off his books than I’ve read his books.
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