Posted on Sun, Nov. 23, 2003

Center Square | While Bloom does the howling, King does the shining

My name is Chris, and I am an English major.

Years ago, I received from tenured professors a full indoctrination in the cult of elitist taste. To this day, I retain a quaint belief that some writing is better than other writing - and it's important to see the difference. I believe that, as one of my professors once put it, when it comes to great literature, you don't judge the book. It judges you.

Yet, for many years, I've been a journalist, beavering away at prose that has the lifespan of a firefly, charting the vagaries of popular culture, enjoined to keep my prose understandable to a 12-year-old. (I cheat a lot.)

So, in the great cultural showdown of the moment, the strange case of Harold Bloom vs. Stephen King, I have a foot in each camp.

King, as you know, is the fabulously prolific and wealthy author of popular novels such as The Shining and screenplays such as The Shawshank Redemption.

Bloom is a literary critic, the lion in winter of his field, a curmudgeon of prodigious learning and ego. He has long crusaded against what he sees as the sad decline of American culture and the erosion of the canon of great Western literature.

What put him over the edge recently was the decision by the National Book Foundation to give King its 2003 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

The barbarians are inside the gates and breaking the crockery, Bloom howled in an essay The Inquirer published on Sept. 25. "Another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life," he proclaimed. King is "an immensely inadequate writer." Bloom averred that only four living American writers are worth a damn: Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy.


King, receiving his medal Wednesday, asked why the likes of Bloom prefer to lob grenades from the chilly citadel of literary fiction into the busy streets of popular fiction, instead of trying to build bridges: "Do you get social academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?"

Hmm. I'm with you, Mr. King. Bloom's attack on you was churlish and lazy, an example of the habitual pitfall of good taste, snobbery.

The most vital work of criticism is to enable appreciation of excellence, not to puff oneself up by denouncing mediocrity. It's not about the critic, it's about the work. The critic should fashion keys to help readers open the door to excellence, not slam the door on their fingers and call them idiots.

Bloom is right to fret about the congealing of culture. But in King, he picks the wrong target. In his acid fulmination, he expands the very cultural chasm that he laments.

One job of a novelist is to give voice to the submerged dreads of the culture. King does that amazingly well, as millions can attest after staying up late, eyes bleary but pulse racing, to finish one of his books.

King is not a hack. He's an honest craftsman with a divining rod for America's angst. When scholars look back to figure out our culture, they'll pay attention to him. Also, he's generous in support of other writers. His return to writing after a drunken driver nearly killed him is inspiring. He earned his medal.

When Bloom thunders insults at such a figure, he perversely undermines his crusade. He confirms for average Joes the sour message of snobbery they got from every bad English teacher they ever had: "Real" literature is a grim test they can never pass, not an unfolding joy that richly repays effort; "real" literature has nothing to do with their everyday lives; the pleasure of storytelling is a silly anachronism, rather than the chief way human beings figure out who they are.

Chris Satullo is editorial page editor. To comment, call 215-854-5943 or email csatullo

© 2003 Philadelphia Inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.