Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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Excellent critique of the Reading as Vitamins School. To it I'd add, however, a question and a comment:

- While reading may not be an inherently improving activity, it *might* be true that watching image-based mass media (TV in particular with all its lines and dots) is inherently stupefying. I know this subject has been studied before, but I'm not up-to-date on the science. I'm wondering if any regular readers of this blog know about research into how image-based media (esp in large amounts) can affect brain activity.

- TV and movies produce excellent narratives ... sometimes. Usually they produce dreck. And it's just getting worse. Keep away from TV for a few weeks and watching it again is an almost hallucinatory experience -- and usually in a nightmarish way. In its drive to recoup its considerable production costs, it just seems to get more and more brutal. Even when the brutality is not explicit, this brutality enters emotional relationships. (Reality TV is a prime example of this.)

In short, we need to defend books and reading with something approaching Kierkegaardian faith because if we don't we may end up with a culture that is dominated by -- well, you choose the adjectives and nouns. But nothing worth being proud of, and certainly (re: Gore's moronic comments on Fitzgerald and Perkins below) nothing that can automatically claim its "art" is equal to the art of all ages.


As well as the 'reading as vitamins' school, don't forget the gateway drug argument: they *start* by reading Stephen King, but before you know it they're reading Brecht. Obviously.


Great post. King baffles me. He's not even good at the things he's meant to be good at.

Eric Rosenfield

May I say, a-fucking-men.

Jonathan  Mayhew

I've heard King interviewed on NPR. Once I didn't know who it was, having come in in the middle, and he was making a quite "high-brow" argument about literacy, reading. Then, I discovered it was King (aargh!). He really wants to be a good writer, to be considered as such. He argues for the legitimacy of genre fiction, etc... that it should get more respect. The problem is that he doesn't in fact transcend his pulpy origins. I could make a better case for Elmore Leonard, who has a way with prose and dialogue.

I really think all those genre writers really wanted to be high modernists, but somehow got sidetracked, whether by lack of talent or by the appeal of the $$$. In their own minds, they are highly serious writers, even if the results on the page don't (usually) bear that out. Ultimately you can't have it both ways.

Another half-way decent movie from a King novella: "Stand By Me."


A good point, indeed. It's like we're scared that if we insist on people being discriminate readers, they won't be readers at all. Having said that, you may pass over the point about attention spans a bit too quickly. As movies and television get dumbed down to a lot of noise and flashing lights, it is somewhat advantageous in general to have someone sitting quietly, by themselves, reading a book. It forces them not to be over-stimulated with the bells and whistles and instead spend some time in their own head with the assistance of, we can only hope, a great writer.


Someone finally articulates this phenomena. Why should people who willingly engage in pulpy fantasy rags on the level of be patted on the back? They can't even distinguish between eloquent writing and writing that's just windy, overwrought and badly plotted. I don't know why Stephen King rakes snobbish people over the coals for their taste (although I do agree with his comments on Harold Bloom), it just proves he is a mere storyteller. Dan Brown and Michael Crichton might as well be writing for television. Quality over quantity. Readers of trash won't branch out as much as people think, because they are simply not interested in what's beyond their local Barnes and Nobles; it can't be helped if this is snobbish.

Still, trash is good every now and then. :P

Finn Harvor

Harry: I don't know how what you wrote was connected to what I wrote (if that's what you intended), but your analogy about King is all wrong: it's not King who's the soft stuff -- it's Harry Potter. King is the hard stuff -- the opiate, the powder distillate that is put in a spoon and cooked over a flame until it turns into a sweet liquid of sexualized paranoia that can be mainlined into the veins of a hundred million addict/consumers.

These same consumers (they prefer the label "spectators") then toddle down to the local arena where they can park themselves on plastic seats and watch the latest installment of the Brutality Spectacle of 21st Century mass culture (over-muscled gladiators with WMD-caliber maces trying desperately to knock each others brains out (the winners rewarded with a little tete-a-derriere with the scantily clad cheerleaders who are only a mouse-click away)).

And where does Brecht fit into all this? Is he (as you say) also a drug? No, Brecht is an antidote -- a methadone. But he's been sitting on the shelf a little too long ... his efficacy is half-lost. And so it is that people like yourself who obviously care about culture need to find the *living* Brechts (or whomever, if Brecht's medicine doesn't quite sit well on the buds of your tongue) and *help them*, *read them*, before they, too, are chased down by the gladiators and destroyed.


Without defending or attacking King's books' merits as art, one should take a minute to consider his (and other mass-popular authors) importance economically. It's their books selling by the kazillion that allow me to walk into a Borders and find the latest Donald Harington.

Jeff VanderMeer

As ever, I find myself bemused by the generalities and the baseline assumptions made by Dan and in some of the comments. The world of fiction is so much more organic and supple than this rigid/frigid demarcation you want to make, this kind of figurative thousand-mile fence you want to have to keep the immigrants out. When they're already in your fiction. Creating hybrids. The truth is, fiction thrives most often when it has as its influences high and low culture (in other words--the totality of life), when writers are willing and able to appreciate and take from a multitude of sources without any snobbery about the source.

If I could take one book with me to a desert island it would be Pale Fire not The Shining, but if I could take two the second wouldn't be Ada. King's convenient to dump on, but if you read his book on writing and if you examine the books he's taken care with (including his latest, if my wife, a very, very picky reader, is correct, as she usually is), you'll find some good stuff. Especially with King, who writes careful books and sloppy books, generalizations are pretty pointless.

And, just to put the lie to one comment above, I did read and enjoy King as a teenager and I did migrate to Nabokov and Joyce and Angela Carter and Martin Amis and Italo Calvino and Marquez and a host of others, while still retaining a fondness for King for what he does well--because he does a lot of things well, and they're things most other authors *cannot* do well. He's not somebody I read regularly, but I'm not silly enough to lump him in with Michael Crichton and Dan Brown, two writers who aren't really writing novels at all, as someone pointed out.

As a writer, I am content to continue to steal good technique and approaches to fiction wherever I find them and re-imagine and re-purpose them as my own. The rest of you can continue to carp about stuff that doesn't really matter.

The true snob knows that there's shit on both side of the fence. And that some of it is mulch.


Dan Green

"The truth is, fiction thrives most often when it has as its influences high and low culture (in other words--the totality of life). . ."

I don't believe there's anything in my post that suggests otherwise.

Jeff VanderMeer

Dan--you may be right, although I was responding to the comments as much as the post. Also, I think there's something lost in translation when I read your posts sometimes. Not saying that's your fault.



I say, old chap!

I had been invited to this informal garden party held by my friend Daniel G. last weekend, in the Hamptons. Nothing fancy -- only 200 guests, 100 servants. The event was held in a heated circus tent with imported Canadian grass covering the floor. Nice touch, rather.

As I was chatting about Paris Hilton's latest outrage with a bunch of socialites -- you've met Dickie and the Sheik before, Rummy wasn't invited of course -- our pal Danny made a bit of a scene... and I feel I was partly to blame for it.

You see, one of the guests -- no names named -- he admitted to having read that prole Stephen King's latest novel -- some nasty business about zombies, I gather -- and also having watched his TV programme "Kingdom Hospital."

And he'd barely finished talking, when ol' Danny turned redder than the lobster salad. I daresay he grabbed the guest by the collar and positively shouted: "Get out of my party! Get out! Right now!"

We were mortified! As an old friend of Danny, I felt it was my duty to intervene. I put my hands on their shoulders and said in my jolliest manner: "Come on, chaps, let's not argue. I'm sure there's no one here who hasn't crossed the railroad tracks once in a while, just to see how the other half lives, eh? No harm done."

But alas, that just made things worse. Danny turned to me livid with rage, and I feared he might actually strike me. Spittle flew from his whitened lips as he told me:

"Stephen King is a stinking Communist infiltrator! He is undermining the strict class boundaries that made this country great! His trashy books are diverting the lower classes from their proper sedative -- the idiot box -- and he encourages them to become literate! Anyone who says differently is a traitor to our race!"

I backed off, mumbled some pleasantries, and led the poor shamed guest to the bar for a glass of champagne. Danny would have to cool off by himself. But he had spoiled the mood of the otherwise so splendid little party, and I excused myself half an hour later.

I haven't had a chat with Danny since. I fear he has made himself persona non grata among our set. Pity! He threw the best parties around. I respect his views, and I do agree we can't let the working classes sharpen their dull minds -- bread and circus, eh? Capital!

But one has to be a gentleman about these things -- not behave like some rabble-rousing Red agitator. Oh well. I'm sure he'll be back to his old self once he comes back from the clinic. Egad! If we were on speaking terms, I'd ask Danny to get Mel's autograph while he's there.


Matthew Tiffany

Stumbled across this; have yet to read the whole thing, but thought everyone here might find it interesting.

Jonathan Mayhew

I wish working class people did read King to sharpen their minds. That would be a nice thing... maybe. Alas, King's audience is not primarily proletarian. Nor do wealthy people with servants tend to read high-brow, difficult fiction. Class distinctions do not map out neatly unto matters of literary taste, which makes the satire above rather pointless, unless I am missing the point of it.

Nor has anyone here made the argument that just reading any particular author should make someone the target of derision and ostracism.

Everyone's a snob who actually takes an art form seriously. Everyone discriminates even within popular genres. There are rock snobs and movie and tv snobs.

I think the point is that the smartest tv or film is much smarter than the dumbest book, so there is no necessary reason to fetishize reading per se. Things should be judged by their merit, and not given extra points because of their artistic medium. Dan's argument is really a bit anti-snobbish, as I read it, in that it doesn't give or subtract points for any form of art just because of its medium of choice. You can't always say the book was better than the movie, because sometimes it's not.


"Readers of trash won't branch out as much as people think, because they are simply not interested in what's beyond their local Barnes and Nobles..."? That's a pretty foolish thing to say. Personally, I couldn't care less what other people enjoy--your reading taste doesn't affect mine one bit--but insinuating that "readers of trash" are narrow-minded is the kind of prejudicial statement I'd expect from someone who's just as narrow-minded. I know it's easy to dump on King, but we weren't all born with good taste. For most people, it's acquired. King was actually my first introduction to adult novels, and--horror of horrors!--I broke the mold and branched out. But I also like variety in my reading diet. I can't subsist on high-brow literary fiction alone; I also happen to enjoy a Bic Mac and greasy french fries from time to time. But dumping on King for not being the most literary author is like slamming a paraplegic for not being able to win the Tour de France. Even King himself has said he's not the greatest writer, and that his books are the equivalent of fast food.

Could penis envy be involved? If only we could all make millions doing what we love the most...


Thank you for proving me wrong with your touching life story.


"Everyone's a snob who actually takes an art form seriously. Everyone discriminates even within popular genres. There are rock snobs and movie and tv snobs."

Agreed. In fact, in my experience genre fanboys tend to be infinteily more snobbish than the most snobbish literary reader. The rankings and classifications and hiearchy and sweeping generalizations and dismissals that genre fans make, often in the same sentence that they deride snobbery in "literary readers", is baffling.

I've enjoyed a lot of genre fiction, but few genre fanboys.

Robert Nagle

Reading for the sake of reading is worthwhile when growing up--it builds vocabulary, concentration skills and teaches you how to write.

In elementary thing, I didn't read Lewis Carroll or dickens or Wind in the Willows. I read ONLY sports biographies. Well, and some astronomy.

I'm of mixed feelings about Stephen King. First, his book On Writing is the ultimate practicioner's book on writing. I can't imagine being a fiction writer today and not having read this book. On the other hand, many of his novels are unwieldy and deal with too many flat characters. I found parts of Misery to be inspiring; the claustrophobia of the novel keeps King from wandering too far afield. On the other hand, there were parts where I thought, too much! you need to restrain yourself.

I'm confident though that 100 years from now some academic publisher will produce selections from his ouvre which will be unbelievably good.

The good/bad thing about reading vs. watching TV is that reading removes you from pop culture (generally). Even if you read a relatively mainstream work, you are not sharing cultural references with other Americans.


The good/bad thing about reading vs. watching TV is that reading removes you from pop culture (generally). Even if you read a relatively mainstream work, you are not sharing cultural references with other Americans.


Firstly I don't see anything wrong with sharing cultural references. Isn't that the basis of a culture anyway?

But how on earth is reading stuff like Stephen King NOT sharing cultural references? More people read the Da Vinchi Code or Stephen King than watch most random TV shows...

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