Stephen King as Public Intellectual

by Henry on September 18, 2012

Attention Conservation Notice: A few hundred words in the key of Someone Not On the Internet1 Is Wrong

Writing about public intellectuals a couple of weeks ago reminded me of how annoyed I was by a comment Tony Judt makes in Thinking the Twentieth Century. Judt contemplates the sales figures of even the most successful ‘intellectual’ book that he might write, and concludes.

if we knock ’em dead, we might hit gross sales of two hundred fifty thousand books across the world. That would be regarded as an altogether remarkable achievement for such a book. But you could also dismiss such sales as a mere bagatelle. Two hundred fifty thousand people, most of whom already agree with us. And many of whom will already know one or both of us and— directly or indirectly— will be pleased to have their views intelligently reflected back at them. You never know, there’s a decent chance that one of us— hopefully you— will be invited to discuss the book and its ideas by Charlie Rose. But you know that we will not hit a million or even half a million sales whatever happens. And we should not be ashamed of this because if we had, we’d be in the Stephen King class and would have betrayed our calling.

I don’t think that Judt specifically had it in for King - he’s presumably just reaching out for the name of any old author who writes bestsellers, and finding King conveniently close to hand. But his formulation (and the more general thinking that lies behind it) makes me want to hit something repeatedly. It’s not just that the unmistakable whiff of the #humblebrag rises from Judt’s description of the lonely role of the public intellectual in an America determined to ignore him. It’s that the claim that leftwing public intellectuals have betrayed their calling if their work is read by millions of people is ridiculous, obnoxious, and self-defeating.

And it’s especially ironic that Judt should write this about Stephen King. A couple of months ago, there was an interesting debate at the LA Review of Books (which I strongly recommend btw - a really great site), on whether Stephen King is a good writer (unsurprisingly, I’m firmly in the ‘yes’ camp). But even though he’s been embraced, gingerly, by the New York Times Book Review and the like, I haven’t seen anyone make the case that he’s an important leftwing public intellectual.

It’s an argument that King himself would probably wince at - he seems too much of a steak and potatoes guy to want to describe himself in such grandiose terms. Even so, I think the description fits. There’s a strong case to be made that his books and stories, taken as a whole, tell you more about the Matter of America than the work of any other living novelist. And they are not only deeply intelligent but politically intelligent. If you want to know what the US was really like under George W. Bush, you’ll probably find out more from reading Under the Dome (which is not even one of King’s best novels) than Ill Fares the Land. The ease with which a slick rightwing populism can slide into something approaching fascism. The ways in which community loyalties can sour politics or redeem them. The intertwining of politics and petty personal jealousies. King gets it all. He has both an understanding of American life that Judt (for his many intellectual gifts) lacked, and the ability to express that understanding in clear, unornamented prose that can speak to millions of people.

Presumably, Judt didn’t know this (I’d be startled if he’d ever even seriously considered picking up one of King’s novels, let alone read one, or thought about it). Instead, he used King’s bestsellers as a drive-by sneer at the kind of book that Serious People Who Write for the New York Review of Books and Appear on Charlie Rose could never write without betraying their vocation.

Judt was a wonderful historian, and, according to all the accounts that I’ve seen, a decent human being. But I don’t think he was a good model for the left. His disdain for popular communication goes together with a version of social democracy that emphasizes the ‘social’ at the expense of ‘democracy.’ One of the bits of Thinking the Twentieth Century that surprised me was how much Judt distrusted democracy, unless it had proper guidance. It gives the impression that the best of all possible worlds is an idealized version of postwar Britain, with disinterested and benevolent Keynesian Mandarins running the show for the benefit of those of lesser intellectual gifts. Nor was he was unique among his set in thinking this. When left thinkers think that public intellectualism involves writing for a public that solely consists of other intellectuals, and that writing for a mass audience is necessarily an act of betrayal, there’s something badly wrong. Or, to put it another way, any American left that doesn’t include people trying to do the very difficult and important things that Stephen King does, while keeping his readers entertained, isn’t going to persuade much of anybody.


  1. And tragically, deceased, besides. 

{ 65 comments }

1

LizardBreath 09.18.12 at 6:58 pm

And they are not only deeply intelligent but politically intelligent.

I have fond memories of getting to the end of Firestarter and finding that the one media organization that can be relied on to blow the lid off the secret government research project devoted to turning people into psychic weapons is Rolling Stone. I’m not sure that that made the book politically intelligent, but it was something.

2

rf 09.18.12 at 7:09 pm

I seem to remember reading the complete opposite in Ill Fares the Land, where he berated the intellectual left for retreating into irrelevance? Perhaps not though, my memory is fading as the years advance.

3

FF 09.18.12 at 7:59 pm

Excuse me if I’m being obtuse but why does the “Matter of America” link point to where it does? Is that list supposed to be a list of the public mythology and legends of the USA? I mean the Lovecraft maybe but it seems pretty incomplete and/or random…

Am I just missing some in-joke?

4

rf 09.18.12 at 8:43 pm

One more thing. This was a useful revision on Judt the intellectual

http://newleftreview.org/II/71/dylan-riley-tony-judt-a-cooler-look

On Judt not being a good role model for the left, perhaps. However he was one of the few left ‘intellectuals’ the past decade that was genuinely interested in the countries of the Middle East on their own terms rather than just hostile towards US foreign policy. (Although his blindspot towards early Zionism I’ll never get.)
Anyway this is all above my paygrade so I’ll leave it there.

5

Peter Erwin 09.18.12 at 8:49 pm

FF @ 3:

I think the referent is the mini-review of Felix Gilman’s book, concerning which Cosma says, “Gilman takes great themes of what one might call the Matter of America — the encroachment of regimented industrial civilization, the hard-eye anarchic men (and women) of violence, the dream of not just starting the world afresh but of offering the last best hope of earth …”

6

bianca steele 09.18.12 at 9:34 pm

Presumably, Judt didn’t know this (I’d be startled if he’d ever even seriously considered picking up one of King’s novels, let alone read one, or thought about it). Instead, he used King’s bestsellers as a drive-by sneer at the kind of book that Serious People Who Write for the New York Review of Books and Appear on Charlie Rose could never write without betraying their vocation.

The last sentence of the paragraph seems overblown. “Sneer” is pretty harsh–“abbreviation” seems accurate enough–and “betraying our vocation” might itself be an intentional overstatement for rhetorical effect. He thinks popular fiction is a waste of time for people who’re educated enough to know better, at most maybe he thinks King is overrated (like Dwight Macdonald would have), and I’d bet that’s all there is to it.

That he didn’t necessarily know much about King, however, and picked up a handy name he knew would get across the relevant idea, I think is probably the case.

(The only Judt I’ve read any of is the book on French intellectuals, which was on the remainder table and didn’t tell me as much about French intellectuals as I’d hoped to learn except that they defended the USSR and attacked the US, which I already knew, having been reading Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs, which make quite clear that as a neutral living by sheer chance in the American Zone she felt compelled to put up some resistance.)

7

Aaron Baker 09.18.12 at 9:49 pm

King is a writer of genuine talent, but his work is repeatedly marred by sentimentality, vulgarity, and verbosity. The verbosity has gotten worse, since I imagine no copy editor will now dare to delete anything he writes.

He’s also one of the worst perpetrators of the “Magical Negro” trope I’ve ever encountered; I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a black Stephen King character who wasn’t magical.

I’ll add two comments about him, lest I be accused of more hostility towards him than I actually feel:

First, my introduction to King. I think it was the late 70s, and I was browsing in Powell’s Bookstore in Chicago. I picked up a copy of Carrie, started reading, and only returned to myself some two to three hours later (by which time I’d read most of the book). I had never read anything before that laid out with such brutal clarity what it was like to be a lonely, ostracized, desperate adolescent. Here was a writer who could describe my pain to me, better than I could myself. King was, and is, a masterly narrator of pain.

Many years later, and after a good deal of frustration with the vices I’ve described above, I picked up the installment of King’s Gunslinger series that tells the tale of the Gunslinger and his lost love, Susan Delgado. Astounding. He let the story itself–about the cruel, pointless death of an admirable young woman–move the reader with no sentimental or vulgar gush added on. His prose was as muscular and economical as I’ve ever seen. If only he always wrote like this! I thought.

8

Phil 09.18.12 at 9:58 pm

I think Stephen King’s a terrific writer over anything up to about 30 pages. The longer short stories I’ve read all seem to be padded out with wads of sentimental down-home Americana with added brand-names, quite extraneous to plot or character development, to the point where you can almost see the blue pencil that wasn’t applied. Never tried any of the novels, for that reason.

I agree, though, that a big part of what King writes about is what it’s like – the emotional temperature of contemporary America – and the ability to do that is not nothing.

Would we be having this discussion if Judt had picked on Robert Ludlum, say? The “I’ll never be successful – God forbid!” comment would have been just as fatuous.

9

William Timberman 09.18.12 at 10:20 pm

The only other people I know who get America the way Stephen King gets it all seem to be directing movies. I’m thinking of movies like Blue Velvet, At Close Range, Promised Land, ET, maybe, and my personal favorite, Near Dark, (which is probably my favorite because I went to high school in Oklahoma.)

Alone on the prairie, surrounded by adult zombies and their incomprehensible customs and bullying offspring, we discover some indefinable internal magic that drives us from our first day at school right through our adolescence, headlong and heedless of the attempts to discourage us, until the light goes out at last, and we become zombies ourselves. I’m sure there are other versions of this particular romanticism, but King is the most recognizably and truly American one I’m aware of. His pitch is absolutely perfect.

10

shah8 09.18.12 at 10:59 pm

I’m not very impressed by Judt’s comments. There are good ways to be a challenging public intellectuals who speak out about selling out. For instance, Nick Mamatas on his livejournal started a conversation about superior and inferior readers a while back, and recently, I read a rather perceptive follow-up article by The Internet Troll Also Known As ACrackedMoon about the nature of reading reviews by people with some intellectual qualities as opposed to reviews by people lacking. What acrackedmoon does, and what Judt apparently doesn’t, is discuss *why* large numbers of people will read a book and review it one way, and another group will read a book and review it a different way, and *does so from a productively elitist narrative*. Her post then verged onto a critique of identity as a substitute for any kind of critical thinking about why there are few of you nerds, and many of those people. Where it seems that Judt merely divides the world into idiots and non-idiots. Acrackedmoon justifies her elitism by describing how feeding majoritarian sentiment tend to drive poor writing and bad (as in sexist, racist, homophobic, etc) narratives. I.e., attempting to write well, and above the common measure of people who only read for the inserted mary sue power fantasies, can only help preserve our best selves and best aspirations.

11

LizardBreath 09.18.12 at 11:46 pm

I think Stephen King’s a terrific writer over anything up to about 30 pages.

I’ve had exactly this thought — that if he were eighty years older, or anyway writing in some period where short stories were a more commercially significant medium, that he might be a much more seriously well-thought of writer.

12

laura 09.19.12 at 12:11 am

Stephen King’s book on writing is really a must-read. I also loved his short stories.

13

MQ 09.19.12 at 12:24 am

Stephen King is a good storyteller, that’s different than being a public intellectual. For better or worse, the intellectual part of public intellectual means leading with abstract ideas in a particular way.

Another good storyteller who is much more explicitly political than King is John Grisham. Almost all of his books are explicitly aimed at questioning corporate power. I don’t think he’s as good as King atmospherically or in terms of characterization. But he’s a good storyteller who loves to take apart how complex systems screw the little guy, the corruption of the legal profession, etc. He’s basically internalized the very best ethics of the plaintiff’s bar (while remaining appropriately skeptical about some aspects of the real-world bar). He can never resist the happy ending tho.

14

Dan M 09.19.12 at 12:32 am

I’m not sure if it adds much, but this brought to mind Jeffery Goldberg’s recent ode to Bruce Springsteen.

And please, if you have any decency delete the version of this comment where I misspelled “Springsteen.”

15

derrida derider 09.19.12 at 12:45 am

Judt was just mentioning a name he knew – he’d probably never read a King book. It’s just unlucky that he picked on a really good popular writer – lord knows there are some that are genuine crap.

I once tried to read a Lord Jeffrey Archer book, on the grounds that the man is such a shit that he must possess redeeming talent. Nope – his writing was shit too. And I don’t mean that it failed to meet the standards of snobbish intellectuosity, I mean it was shit in its own terms as as popular writing. That needs not hard thought, deep scholarship or even wild imagination but just technical craftsmanship (something King, BTW, emphasises in his book on writing). I can’t see why people would buy thrillers like Archer’s when there are plenty of airport novelists who can compose a plain English sentence, create credible characters and structure a good narrative arc; King certainly being one of them.

Life is too short for bad books.

16

PJW 09.19.12 at 12:50 am

Salem’s Lot seriously freaked me out when I read it as a kid in the ’70s. I read The Stand at lunch time in college when I should have been reading Willa Cather. It’s almost inconceivable that I could get that spooked by any book today and I miss that sort of experience. I read King rather obsessively up until the Cujo and Christine period and I gave up on him, much like I did with the Rolling Stones post-Some Girls and Springsteen post-Born in the USA. I did, however, dip my toes back in King waters last fall with his 11/22/63, which tied together two of my favorite interests from the ’70s — King books and the JFK asassination. It was an entertaining read and a nice break from the weightier tomes I tend to hang out with these days. His book of short stories from the early days (Different Seasons) is considered canonical by at least one critic whose judgment on such matters I hold in the highest regard.

17

peggy 09.19.12 at 1:28 am

King’s early works are his best. I could never read the Dark Tower and after Insomnia (1995) I gave up entirely. He could use an editor but is much too famous.

As to politics, I was just reading a serious analysis of the perils of a Romney presidency on Balloon-Juice using the film “The Dead Zone” as an analogy. King did, and may still, understand what it’s like to be a poor white person in Maine, which is one of the less prosperous states of the union. Only the summer people, and those who serve them, have any money.

18

bad Jim 09.19.12 at 2:09 am

King’s not shy about political commentary, either:

I’ve known rich people, and why not, since I’m one of them? The majority would rather douse their dicks with lighter fluid, strike a match, and dance around singing “Disco Inferno” than pay one more cent in taxes to Uncle Sugar.

The whole thing is worth reading.

19

Freddie 09.19.12 at 2:17 am

When did Jonah Goldberg start writing for Crooked Timber?

(zing!)

20

Henry 09.19.12 at 3:47 am

I’m afraid zingers aren’t your strong suit, Freddie. Then, I’m not sure what is. Certainly not basic reading comprehension.

21

Nine 09.19.12 at 5:44 am

LizardBreath @1 -
“the one media organization that can be relied on to blow the lid off the secret government research project devoted to turning people into psychic weapons is Rolling Stone.the one media organization that can be relied on to blow the lid off the secret government research project devoted to turning people into psychic weapons is Rolling Stone.”

Well, Matt Taibbi’s stuff at RS probably had more to do with turning Goldman Sachs’ shenanigans into James Bond level villainy in the public mind that all other serious media combined.

22

Phil 09.19.12 at 6:57 am

bad Jim – thanks for that. Excellent stuff.

The Koch brothers are right-wing creepazoids, but they’re giving right-wing creepazoids. Here’s an example: 68 million fine American dollars to Deerfield Academy. Which is great for Deerfield Academy. But it won’t do squat for cleaning up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, where food fish are now showing up with black lesions. It won’t pay for stronger regulations to keep BP (or some other bunch of dipshit oil drillers) from doing it again. It won’t repair the levees surrounding New Orleans. It won’t improve education in Mississippi or Alabama. But what the hell—them li’l crackers ain’t never going to go to Deerfield Academy anyway. Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.

Stephen King as public intellectual? Fuck yeah.

23

robotslave 09.19.12 at 7:25 am

The odd thing about this is that if you’re willing to embrace the brave new world of internet journalism, and cast aside all that came before, then Stephen King was dead at 54, as reported by talk radio, over ten years ago.

Netcraft confirms it.

And really, unless you’ve got that certain tragic weakness for the leaden-tongued devil, I don’t see how you could possibly demur.

24

ajay 09.19.12 at 8:57 am

21: and it’s certainly more realistic than that film about the heroic investigative journalists who unravel this whole high-level conspiracy about burglary and illicit funding and the White House in the 1970s, and they’re supposed to work for the Washington Post. Please.

Or, indeed, Dr Strangelove:
–But why would you build such a thing?
–The deciding factor was when we learned that your country was working along similar lines, and we were afraid of a doomsday gap.
–This is preposterous. I’ve never approved of anything like that.
–Our source was the New York Times.
–Wait, you believed something the New York Times told you about a WMD program?

25

Ken MacLeod 09.19.12 at 9:29 am

And we should not be ashamed of this [not selling a milion and a half] because if we had, we’d be in the Stephen King class and would have betrayed our calling.

Bizarrely, I read this the first time as saying any left-wing public intellectual who sold a million and a half had betrayed their calling, which was to write good popular fiction. In an alternate universe, the airport shelves are stacked with the thrillers of David Graeber and the romances of Naomi Klein.

26

ajay 09.19.12 at 10:24 am

the romances of Naomi Klein

“No Pants”.

27

Metatone 09.19.12 at 11:25 am

It seems an odd comment from Judt to compare his non-fiction work with fiction.
Instead of King, why not choose Tolstoy? The numbers are equally bad for Judt. But then we’d see that it’s not really about quality, it’s about medium.

As for King, I never liked his books, but he’s always struck me as perceptive about current culture. If there’s one lingering sense about Judt I always had, it was that he never really engaged with culture as it is now, his writing seemed to think about a world of 20 years ago rather than the current (and frankly less hopeful) situation we face now.

28

Jeffrey Davis 09.19.12 at 1:15 pm

Crime books, espionage, horror — any of them stretched beyond the 190 pages of the paperback books of the 30s and 40s have outlived their welcome. Nobody is scary or menacing or mysterious much beyond that. After that your genius better be at the level of Tolstoy or Joyce or Dickens, and you’d better be writing something other than pulp.

I keep near at hand my favorites of that ilk and they’re so much shorter than a King novel they appear to be by a different species. Rogue Male. Background to Danger. Farewell My Lovely. Red Harvest. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I tried the book that King (at one time) thought of as his best — The Stand — and it was tiresome. Just long-winded. And that was the abbreviated one! Carrie was a great movie. 2 hours or so. (And it was still padded. Do you remember the scenes where William Katt dresses for the prom? Neither did I until I re-watched it.)

29

Andthenyoufall 09.19.12 at 1:27 pm

It seems strange to criticize Judt for a pessimistic treatment of populism from the towering heights of “Crooked Timber”. Remember, kiddies, man is an animal in need of a master…

30

ajay 09.19.12 at 1:58 pm

Crime books, espionage, horror — any of them stretched beyond the 190 pages of the paperback books of the 30s and 40s have outlived their welcome. Nobody is scary or menacing or mysterious much beyond that.

This is one of those cracking trollish statements that Crooked Timber does so well. The best bit is that the author then cites a list of his favourite books, all of which he has near at hand and every one of which is longer than 190 pages. Raising the delightful possibility that he’s never managed to finish any of them and therefore doesn’t actually know how many pages there are.

31

rea 09.19.12 at 2:10 pm

I guess I wonder why Tony Judt wrote books, if he wasn’t comfortable with the idea of communicating with a large audience.

32

Sebastian H 09.19.12 at 3:23 pm

I agree that King could use a gifted editor, but that is a criticism that doesn’t hold much force if our comparison set includes bloated public intellectual writing. Both sets of authors will insist they needed those extra 300 pages to drive it home.

33

ajay 09.19.12 at 4:08 pm

Actually, blogging seems to be making our public intellectuals a lot more concise. Paul Krugman’s latest is very punchy.

34

Witt 09.19.12 at 4:24 pm

The moment that made me like Stephen King the most was his heartfelt speech on the National Book Award, which has to be one of the kindest and most thoughtful spousal acknowledgements ever seen in an acceptance speech.

35

Peter Hovde 09.19.12 at 5:22 pm

Salem’s Lot not only features wonderful evocations of town life that link up with the supernatural horror, but also a vampire Tocqueville who expounds about America before taking his victims.

36

Jeffrey Davis 09.19.12 at 5:44 pm

re: 30

Ah, the Pepsi Challenge. Of the books at hand I was 2/4

Rogue Male comes in at 182
Red Harvest: 142
Spy Who Came in from the Cold: 223
Background to Danger: 280

Don’t know where my Farewell, My Lovely is. Amazon shows a volume for sale at 245 pages.

I just checked some others:
The Stand: 1200 pages.
Ulysses: 564 pages
finnegans wake: 672 pages.
Tristram Shany: 735 pages
War and Peace: 1424 pages

But I stand by the gist of the post. Pulp should be short. Why such a commonplace is considered trolling is a mystery to me.

37

ajay 09.19.12 at 5:56 pm

It’s trolling because

a) you’re condemning entire genres – huge, diverse genres – to “pulp” status, which is the kind of contentious, sweeping statement that trolls are fond of.

b) you’re essentially saying that the best-known and best-regarded works of those authors are worthless – “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” doesn’t come anywhere close to your 190-page threshold, neither does “The Maltese Falcon” or “The Mask of Dimitrios”.

c) you’re doing so based on ignorance and mistaken information, because current editions of all of those are over 200 pages with the exception of Rogue Male which is 198 pages.

38

Jeffrey Davis 09.19.12 at 7:10 pm

re: 37

I did not essentially say “worthless”. Art for me is all about pleasure. Non est disputandum and all that. If 1200 pages of Stephen King swings it for you, help yourself.

Re: Ambler, the movie is titled The Mask of Dimitrios. The book is titled A Coffin for Dimitrios. It’s famous, but a little dull. For me. his best (pre-war) are Background to Danger and Cause for Alarm. Both with a movie-friendly communist pal for the hero and heroes who didn’t take Fascism seriously. Initially. Post war, I think Light of Day (which became “Topkapi” in the movies) and A Passage of Arms are almost up to his pre-war best.

I checked on some other of my other favorites. Like P.G. Wodehouse. One of his Psmith books is around 140 pages. There are many editions of his that I wore out by carrying them in a jeans pants back pocket. 190 pages fit there comfortably. I scrolled through several pages of Amazon listings looking for a favorite edition of his — with funny pseudo Art Deco covers — and found a nice 5-books-in-one edition that clocks in at 682 pages. That’s less than 140 pages per book. If you think I’m denigrating Wodehouse, as the Monty Python character who was looking for a fish license said, I shall have to ask you to step outside.

As for Le Carre, as he got on, he definitely liked to go on more, didn’t he? His novels, for me, are a mixed-genre bag. They’re mostly love stories with spy novel trappings.

My edition of The Maltese Falcon comes in at 145 pages. It’s in an omnibus edition of Hammett. A 1980 production of Avenel Press.

I have a 2007 edition of Rogue Male from NYRB: 182 pages. I don’t know which edition you’re looking at. Or maybe you’re pulling my leg. (He said. And the light went on.)

39

BigHank53 09.19.12 at 10:55 pm

Those of you who can get to the US Amazon page should try reading the first page of Rose Madder. Just the first page. King considers it his most tightly-written book (he’s well aware of his ink-spilling habits) and he also claims it’s his worst seller.

40

Nemo 09.19.12 at 11:36 pm

Thinking about political positions taken by horror writers reminds me of the quote below from H.P. Lovecraft. Written over 75 years ago and just as true today.

“As for the Republicans – how can one regard seriously a frightened, greedy,nostalgic huddle of tradesmen and lucky idlers who shut their eyes to history and science, steel their emotions to against decent human sympathy, cling to sordid and provincial ideals exalting sheer acquisitiveness and condoning artificial hardship for the non-materially-shrewd, dwell smugly and sentimentally in a distorted dream-cosmos of outmoded phrases and principles and attitudes based on the bygone agricultural-handicraft world, and revel in (consciously or unconsciously) mendacious assumptions (such as the notion that real liberty is synonymous with the single detail of unrestricted economic license, or that a rational planning of resource-distribution would
contravene some vague and mystical “American heritage”…) utterly contrary to fact and without the slightest foundation in human experience? Intellectually, the Republican idea deserves the tolerance and respect one gives the dead.”
H.P. Lovecraft, 1936
quoted in “H.P. Lovecraft, a Life” by S.T. Joshi, p. 574

41

Neil 09.20.12 at 1:22 am

It’s trolling, or at least not a useful contribution Jeffrey Davis, because it simply asserts a claim that is dubious, in a tone that suggests that anyone who disagrees deserves no more than condescension. Plenty of people around here like some ‘genre’ books that are much longer – eg., the books of China Mieville. Now if you had some argument designed to show us we’re wrong – an argument , not a high handed assertion – that would be one thing. Otherwise you’re just mouthing off. You don’t like those books? Don’t read ‘em.

42

shah8 09.20.12 at 1:40 am

I don’t find Mieville particularly long. Many of his books are pretty short, actually, in my recollection. I can also say that very few genre writers can write well enough for longer works. Iain M. Banks is a much better example, Neil. I understand about the “short” thing, but this was driven by the economics of publishing, as explained by Stross in one of his blog post either last year or two years ago. So while Mieville writes longer books than what the troll thinks is appropriate, the length of his books are rather normal.

43

Neil 09.20.12 at 2:02 am

China Mieville’s books (info from Amazon):
The City & The City: 500 pp.
Perdido Street Station: 880 pp.
Embassytown: 400 pp.
Railsea: 384 pp
Kraken: 400 pp
The Scar: 800 pp.
King Rat: 416 pp.
Un Lun Dun: 528 pp.

That’s an average length of 472 pp – more than twice the length permitted by the good troll.
Iron Council: 400 pp.

44

Neil 09.20.12 at 2:05 am

Actually, Stross is himself averaging at more than twice the permitted length, at least if the laundry series is anything to go by.

45

Greg Hays 09.20.12 at 3:06 am

My paperback copy of The City & The City is 336 pp. I’m willing to believe a 500 pp. edition exists, but it would have to have pretty big type.

Or maybe–pleasant thought–there is more than one version …

46

Neil 09.20.12 at 3:13 am

Greg, a search inside of C&C on the very same amazon page that lists it at 500 pp indicates a page length the same as your edition.

Still true that his Crobuzon books are lengthy tomes. Might add Neil Gaiman to the list of people who write ‘genre’ books that some of us enjoy and which do not meet Mr Troll’s specifications. I’m sure it would be very easy to come up with a list of such folk that itself was too long for Mr Troll to read.

47

Adrian Kelleher 09.20.12 at 7:29 am

In other news: chalk wins grudge match against its old rival cheese and apples play out a score draw against oranges.

Moving on, it’s problematic to complain about the word “pulp”. To protest that this characterisation of genre fiction is ‘trolling’ implies there exists some actual pulp that is somehow inferior. Of course “pulp” might be considered a loaded word, but even if this is accepted it only drags everything down to one level. Complaining about it on the other hand elevates non-pulp.

And what might the merits of non-pulp popular fiction be? King’s “politically intelligent” fiction gets a nod, but if a work of fiction is just making a political statement then surely it’s simply propaganda. One way or another, similar criticisms may be made about any other statements through literature: it’s simply not the appropriate medium. Neither is it clear exactly what’s lost in making such statements through unselfconscious and unassuming entertainment.

Then there’s the vast quantity of literature already in existence to be considered, a body increasing at an ever-increasing rate. Newly published work pretty much has to displace something else in readers’ schedules, and many fine authors of the recent past are already either being forgotten or else suffering the brutal fate of having their works reduced to a handful of quotations. Claims to literary merit also imply an insult, practical if not intentional, to them.

48

Ed 09.20.12 at 11:03 am

@45 I’ve got a 500-page edition, and so does everyone I know.

All this talk about a 336-page version is making me feel a bit uncomfortable, to be honest.

49

Jackmormon 09.20.12 at 8:26 pm

1. Stephen King is a great and generous reviewer of other people’s writing in a whole range of genres.

2. The Eyes of the Dragon has the greatest fictional defense of Keynesian economics I’m aware of. It ends up being the deus ex machina of that particular book (which I recommend, anyway).

50

oudemia 09.20.12 at 9:52 pm

37/38: The *American* title of the book is A Coffin for Dimitrios. In ajayland it was published as The Mask of Dimitrios.

51

Jeffrey Davis 09.21.12 at 12:47 am

Aesthetic judgments have ellipses like Latin: they all come with an implied “For me …”

The thread singled out Stephen King as a surprising intellectual. Why would that be subject of a thread if it weren’t because of the received opinion that he isn’t? And not just for his horror material. People other than me have objected to the length of his books.

It is within that context that I ventured my preference for much shorter works. My comment didn’t arrive ex nihil. I didn’t derail the thread. Or hijack it. If it hadn’t been thumped on, my comment would have lived out its days in mute obscurity. The number of books longer than Richardson’s Pamela that are sold these days testify that lots of people love a bit of girth in their books. My comment was directed (probably hopelessly) toward a possible editor who, reading my preference, would risk encouraging authors to make it snippy again.

52

Neil 09.21.12 at 1:38 am

Well all my comments come with an implied “(I don’t mean what I just said)”. I’m surprised you didn’t see the words I failed to write: they were so obviously not there.

53

Jeffrey Davis 09.21.12 at 12:17 pm

re: 52

If only there was a commonplace maxim about disputing taste, we’d never have needed to argue.

54

Cahokia 09.21.12 at 1:48 pm

Happy 65th birthday to Mr. Stephen King! :)

55

ajay 09.21.12 at 3:05 pm

My paperback copy of The City & The City is 336 pp. I’m willing to believe a 500 pp. edition exists, but it would have to have pretty big type. Or maybe–pleasant thought–there is more than one version …

Of course, “The City & The City” does have 500 pages, but readers all enter an unconscious agreement only to read 336 of them and to ignore the rest.

56

Keith M Ellis 09.21.12 at 8:34 pm

There’s a way of writing about one’s own tastes in a way that is clearly subjective and allows for personal idiosyncrasies. There’s another way that is condescending, normative, sometimes combative. Jeffrey Davis, your comment was not the latter.

And you know that it wasn’t, and was unambiguously either objective/universal or normative, as demonstrated by your opening paragraph:

Crime books, espionage, horror — any of them stretched beyond the 190 pages of the paperback books of the 30s and 40s have outlived their welcome. Nobody is scary or menacing or mysterious much beyond that. After that your genius better be at the level of Tolstoy or Joyce or Dickens, and you’d better be writing something other than pulp.

The third sentence is not relative to your own subjective experience whatsoever. The second might be, but given the tenor of the whole comment, it’s more reasonable to interpret this as an assertion about all readers’ experience, not merely your own. And the first sentence is somewhere in-between.

Overall, you fail miserably on making it clear that you were describing your own preferences and not attempting an authoritative objective judgment. Because, obviously, you were attempting an authoritative, objective judgment and your claims otherwise are dishonest.

If there’s one thing (in this context) that really chaps my ass, it’s people who make provocative “your favorite band sucks” type assertions and then, attempting to defend their indulgence in provocation, claim that “hey, it’s a matter of taste and this was only my personal opinion”. Pick one: make an objective aesthetic argument, or testify to your subjective experience. Don’t equivocate one with the other.

57

Keith M Ellis 09.21.12 at 8:36 pm

(Er, “was the latter”, I meant. Dammit.)

58

Jeffrey Davis 09.21.12 at 9:55 pm

re: 56

S0rry you didn’t like it. The corpse of the issue has become a bit whiff. I don’t think it’s going to twitch anymore.

59

bob mcmanus 09.21.12 at 10:10 pm

How to Watch an Art Movie …Bordwell

Which, of course, is also “How to Make an Art Movie” that the specialized arthouse crowd will enjoy and support.

What I miss in these arguments is an objective analysis of how formal elements in particular genres (and I consider art literature just another genre) please their readers. Perhaps Rowling and King did not need editors to prune their later doorstops because it was actually the length and padding that was what, in some process we have not yet detailed, that gave their readers (and the writers when writing) a particular kind of pleasure, that we have not yet categorized.

The precision, concision, ellision and ellipsis, careful and particular observation for the creation of original metaphors and similes…these aspects of high lit are not moral goods or technological advances but techniques and tools of style to elicit a particular aesthetic response in a limited readership. But Twilight also has a lot of fans.

My personal preference is not for a critic to demonstrate her refined and rarified sense of taste, or their broad egalitarian lack of taste, but to tell me precisely how, without judgement, both Michael Haneke and Michael Bay work their respective magics.

60

bob mcmanus 09.21.12 at 10:14 pm

Shorter:If you don’t like the book, you are reading it wrong.

And I mean it.

61

rf 09.21.12 at 10:23 pm

@58

I have to say I agree with you, except I’d up the book length to 250 pages and include non fiction.

62

bob mcmanus 09.21.12 at 11:22 pm

61:except I’d up the book length to 250 pages and include non fiction.

The Cambridge History of Japan, v 6, 20th Century was like perfect at 836 pages.

Thing is, I didn’t try to read it all at one sitting.

I get so much more tired of people than I do of books.

63

jj 09.23.12 at 11:56 am

Great post, said as a King fan and one who finds your point about politics and communication (and the politics of communication) to be just right.

64

Jacob Hartog 09.24.12 at 1:18 am

The Shining is easily the best book about alcoholism I’ve ever read, especially the parts that don’t seem to be about alcoholism.

65

PeterC 09.24.12 at 1:46 am

Have to agree with Henry’s sentiments here. A writer, no matter how ‘brillant’ they consider themselves needs to consider their audience, to be effective. There is nothing disreputable in managing to engage, with great success, with a large and broad audience. Those who succeed may have little that merited the audience. But that does not follow. And of two with things of equal merit to say, the one who succeeds in engagement can hardly be judged inferior.

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