Victor Hugo and Company

Victor HugoWhen I was twelve and playing Authors with my friends, Victor Hugo was a major literary figure, but so too were Stevenson and Longfellow. After many years in the study of literature, Hugo (and Stevenson and Longfell0w) were moved to a lesser rung and received that academic curse that relegates them to the wire rack down and the drugstore .. popular writers. Many people rebel against this somewhat subjective (but hardly permanent) designation: there are good reasons why Stephen King is not dominating the Freshman syllabus in the English Department at the University. Unfortunately too many readers blame the academics for not recognizing the wealth of literary excellence to be found in Harry Potter. I’m certain I could find a dozen readers who would insist that Fifty Shades of Gray be taught in an honors seminary at the university (in the English Department, not Health Sciences). Fifty or a hundred years from now if Anne Rice is still remembered, her works just might be read, studied, and overanalyzed by academics … but a safer bet would be that no one will remember Anne Rice.

It is a typically American condition to have a part-time grocery clerk know more about literature (or anything else) than the experts in the field. I know the brain surgeon in this area always calls me up for advice just before a tricky operation.

The opposite is also true:  there are many works of fiction that are receiving a great deal of academic attention today that may fade and sink fast (ask the estate of Thomas Wolfe).

What current authors will withstand the test of time and have their works become true classics? I’ll start a list of authors but I’m guessing they won’t all survive:

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The Cool Ghoul Abides

For whatever reason, I have never responded to Horror genre fiction (at least not since Zacherley’s Midnight Snacks). When we stayed up to watch Chiller Theater on Saturday nights, those classic Universal horror movies were fresh and downright scary. Of course after seeing The Mummy for the sixteenth time, it loses some of its fright factor. It’s interesting that I once found movies scary but it never seemed to work in literature. The last book I read that had me in a sweat was James Dickey’s Deliverance which was almost as scary as James Dickey.

So is it any wonder that I don’t find anything of value in Stephen King? He’s boring and not good enough a writer to make me forget how silly his narrative is.  I did read the first Anne Rice—Interview with the Vampire— with some interest. But then I made the mistake of assuming the author was onto something and agonizingly slugged my way through the first half of her second vampire novel before fighting off the horrid writing and casting it into the pit under the sink. I haven’t done a scientific study but I believe Rice mentions blood more than Rowling mentions quidditch … but it’s close and could go the either way.

I have read and reread the standards of horror—Frankenstein, Dracula, House on Haunted Hill, Tales of Cthulhu, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Rosemary’s Baby, The Day of the Locusts, and various copies of the Fortean Times—all without a shudder or a grimace. They all remind me of a very silly joke that went around when I was in fourth grade:  “Do you want to hear a dirty story?” [the audience moves in close and begins to pant] … “A boy runs around the corner and falls in a mud puddle.” [groans of disappointment]. Horror stories have a similar effect on me.

So I’m trying to make a list of the books I read that I found even moderately scary. Did I mention Deliverance? I’m stuck … any ideas?

Was Stephen King the Inspiration for Pixar’s Cars?

An excellent writer?

Having withstood the shock and awe of many book groups through the years by steadfastly refusing to read, much less admire, anything written by Stephen King, I was pleased to run across an editorial on the same subject in the LA Review of Books:  My Stephen King Problem: A Snob’s Notes by Dwight Allen. My one complaint is that Allen refers to his essay as a “Snob’s Notes.” I prefer to think of the situation as an observant, thinking individual against the King bigots. Be sure to read all the knee-jerk negative comments on Allen’s essay for an overview of the fans of SK.

Why do people read Stephen King? Beats the poop out of me. King is a less than stellar writer and unnecessarily wordy. I have attempted to read King on three occasions, generally to show King lovers that I will give the author an honest opportunity to overcome my inability to see anything redeeming in his novels. Unfortunately, the results are all about the same and involve an open window. I have had readers meekly suggest that they read King for escape and because he is easy to read. This I find unbelievable:  King’s writing, for me, is a terrible mishmash that is not worth the effort it takes to make it understandable, and this doesn’t even consider the less than brilliant and highly repetitious narratives that King’s imagination regurgitates on a regular basis.

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What do we do with JCO?

Joyce Carol Oates is one of the more prolific writers in the world but despite her academic credentials and prestigious placement at Princeton, is she really an author that will withstand the rigors of time and changes in public (let alone academic) opinion?

Is it possible that the amount of quality writing is somehow a finite commodity and no matter how hard they might try, authors generally cannot exceed their threshold? Let’s look at a few prolific authors and test that hypothesis. Here is my list, although you might want to consider other writers too:

  • Georges Simenon
  • Honoré de Balzac
  • Alexander Dumas
  • Stephen King
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Joyce Carol Oates.

Right off the top I see we can eliminate two authors, not because they disprove the conjecture, but because consideration of their works doesn’t require great thought or effort. First, Edgar Rice Burroughs and his ilk probably never approached the threshold of greatness, but rather should be measured on a different scale, one involving fun. Stephen King, however, is possibly a candidate for consideration but it is immediately obvious that he has never dipped a sentence in the pool of good writing so we can hardly expect to find anything worth saving, let alone reading, in his works.

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