Elitism exists. I’ve accepted this. And yet, I have to wonder why. Why is it that some things are considered more intellectually “valuable” than other things? Why is it that anything that is popular is automatically lowbrow and bad taste? Whether in literature, music or art, there seems to be a specific definition (or a widely accepted concept) as to what constitutes literature.
My friend Tom once told me that he doesn’t bother to read fiction. “Why read something made up,” he said, “when you can read something that is true?” This logic applies not only to fiction vs. non-fiction, but also to this strangely amorphous yet absolutely immutable idea of good literature. Why read a murder mystery when you can read Virginia Woolf?
Stephen King, one of my favorites, was considered by my high school English teacher, Mrs. Read, to be pulp — a way that uneducated people pass the time while sitting in airports or waiting for their kids at swim class. Another look, however, reveals much more: intricate plots, fascinating characters, layered themes that weave in and out of the parts of humanity that lurk somewhere below the level of waking consciousness. Isn’t that what books are about, when it comes down to it? Something that can touch you, move you, change your life to the extent that you no longer see things the same way after the last page is turned? Isn’t that why we read?
Books have a sense of magic that is lacking in other forms of artistic expression. Film is mental images projected onto a screen. Music manifests itself in discrete melodies, rhythms and words, and art is physical expression in its most raw form. Unlike these, books require active participation. To truly experience a novel to its fullest extent is to accept the fact that another world can, and does, exist. It is Coleridge’s “willing suspense of disbelief,” King’s “truth within the lie,” the power that the written word has to take on a life and shape of its own, to the extent that even the physical presence of a book has the potential to inspire or threaten. I still hide my horror novels behind my socks sometimes when I’m too scared to finish reading them.
It is this odd, strangely unexplored and unrealized phenomenon that makes a book so powerful. Historical precedents exist in all cultures. The Bible requires faith as its foundation, an acceptance of a higher truth. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is famously known as the book that helped instigate the Civil War. This mysterious influence of the written word is what made the Nazis burn books during the 1930s and what led to the uproar over censorship during the latter years of the 20th century.
It is precisely this emotional effect that should define the value of a work. “Anna Karenina” didn’t become a classic because of its vast exploration of human themes. “The Sound and the Fury” isn’t read in English class because of its unique structure. Their status as literature emerged from the fact that someone, somewhere, read them and became a different person. Only now can we say that they have intellectual merit because they have lasted for so long. In 50 years, I believe that Stephen King will have as good a reputation as Dickens. After all, in his time, Shakespeare was adored by the masses.
Forget reading “literature.” Forget those books that people told you to read because they would edify your mind or make you seem more intelligent at cocktail parties. Throw away your preconceptions about paperbacks. Literature should not be predicated on the number of long words used in the text. It should never be about the remoteness of the subject or the complexity of the motifs. Literature should be something that makes you want to read more. It should be the cumulative capacity that words have to transport you to distant realms or teach you about yourself. I will not stop reading Stephen King for the same reason that I won’t stop listening to Sarah McLachlan or appreciating “Spongebob Squarepants.” They have provided me with those rare moments of happiness, when nothing else exists except what I’m feeling at the time. They have terrified me and they have made me laugh, and in defiance of all who tell me I should read something more worthwhile, I will say it now: I love horror novels.
Take that, Mrs. Read.
Bernie still can’t accept the fact that Stephen King is the worst writer ever. Convince her at firstname.lastname@example.org.