September 16, 2003

STFU Harold Bloom

Quoted in September 15th’s New York Times regarding the National Book Awards’ intent to give its annual medal for distinguished lifetime achievement to Stephen King: "He is a man who writes what used to be called penny dreadfuls," said Harold Bloom, the Yale professor, critic and self-appointed custodian of the literary canon. "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."

Let me return fire in the same spirit.

Harold Bloom is a pompous ass who can’t even be bothered to live up to the first responsibility of intellectual life, which is to do your homework and respect the difficulties that are native to complex ideas and arguments.

Anybody on the right who has bothered to sally forth against pompous left-wing intellectuals for their isolation from everyday life, for their elitism, ought to be just as drawn to criticism of Bloom at this point. That won’t happen, because he plays a tune on their favored banjo, a tune that a certain species of strangely paradoxical anti-intellectual intellectual wannabee finds perversely soothing.

You can make an argument (and should make an argument) that there are meaningful qualitative differences between works of culture. You can refuse the easy, lazy way that some work in cultural studies refuses to talk about those differences, or the way that some works of literary criticism subordinate those kinds of aesthetic value judgements to identity or politically-linked strategies for constructing literary canons.

The most important point is that those qualitative judgements are hard to make, not easy. They're the meat-and-potatoes business of literary criticism. They require a lot of laying of philosophical and intellectual foundations to make in general (which Bloom has done, though in ways I profoundly disagree with) but also a lot of labor in each and every specific case, which Bloom has not done.

I suppose you might be safe casually slanging a limited class of cultural works in the New York Times, but Stephen King is most assuredly not a safe target, which anyone who was awake and alert while reading him would know. First, King’s actual craftwork as a writer commands respect, regardless of the subject matter of his writing. However, I also think his ability to capture some of the social and psychological content of middle-class American life in the late 20th Century is favorably comparable to Updike, Irving and a number of other writers that might actually appear on Bloom’s stunted little radar screens.

Those two points alone have to be thought about seriously even from the small-minded, mean pedestal that Bloom perches so troglodytically upon.
Beyond that, however, is King’s subject matter. Obviously, for Bloom, this is the real issue: someone who writes about vampires and animate cars and evil clowns and psychotic romance-novel fans can’t possibly be good. Here we’re into a wider morass of debates about what constitutes good or worthy culture, and Bloom if he likes can categorically rule out anything that has a whiff of “penny dreadfuls”. If he were fair-minded about it, he’d have to concede that would leave some of Shakespeare in the garbage bin, and probably other works from his precious canon as well, but I wouldn’t expect him to be fair.

I would say simply that on this subject that categorically I disagree with him. The culture which matters most is not merely the culture that aesthetes praise as worthy, but the culture which indures, inspires, circulates, and is meaningful and memorable for many people, to the widest audiences. Sometimes that involves the adroit manipulation of archetypical themes and deep tropes of the popular culture of a particular time and place, and King does both of those things. I don’t know how he’ll be read a century from now, but I do know that in this time and place he not only tells a damn fine story (most of the time: even I would regard some of his work as hackwork) but manages to say some important things about consumerism, family, childhood, apocalyptic dread, obsession and many other resonant, powerful themes of his day and age.

The Dead Zone is in many ways one of the best framings of an important moral question about individual responsibility and knowledge that I can think: what are you called upon to do when you are certain you can prevent evil from happening through your own actions? Misery is a psychologically taut investigation of obsession, failure and the nature of literary merit. At his best, King’s importance as a specifically American literary figure seems unquestioned to me, and his work as iconically representative of the American spirit in his time as Last of the Mohicans was in its day.

This is not to say that I think this award ought to go to anybody who sells a boatload of books, or be a popularity contest. It's not even to say that King is unambiguously a deserving recipient. But the case for King’s merit is serious even if you believe that there is good literature and bad junk. That Bloom doesn’t bother to make his case seriously is more an indictment of his own intellectual indolence than a meaningful criticism of King or the National Book Awards.