Columns
11:18 am
Sun October 5, 2003

Nicki Leone - National Book Awards

Book reviewer Nicki Leone asks who really deserves a lifetime achievement award for literary excellence.

Wilmington NC – [Click the LISTEN button above to hear Nicki's column.]

While the rest of the reading public has been wondering who the heck this JM Coetzee guy is that just won the Nobel Prize for literature, I have been watching a different storm raging in a different teacup. This is the season that the National Book Foundation gives out its ?national book awards? for best books of the year.

I like the NBF, which was created, way back in 1950, with a mission to (and I quote) ?enhance the public's awareness of exceptional books written by fellow Americans?. They have done this by giving awards to writers whose work represented the very best of the year. They have ?enhanced the public?s awareness? of writers who are now considered American masters- John Cheever and Tony Morrison. They have singled out writers whose books took literature to new levels of excellence-like Philip Roth. And more recently, they have apparently been dedicated to recognizing books so obscurely written, they were possibly unreadable: Many were aghast as Jonathan Franzen stepped up to accept his award for The Corrections (a novel that, if my customer feedback is any guide, was tossed in the trash as often as it was actually finished) . It was the Franzen award that turned criticism of the National Book Foundation- always at a murmur- into a dull roar. They were accused of being elitist and out of touch with the reading public; more concerned with sentence structure than the little things that make a novel good- like a plot.

Writers (and readers) of genre fiction glumly point out that although people like John Grisham or Stephen King are read and loved by millions, they don?t have a chance in hell of winning the any prizes for literature. And they are right. Or, they were right until this month, when the NBF saw fit to give its award for ?distinguished contribution to American Letters? to none other than Stephen King.

People still howled. The NBF was now accused to pandering to public opinion. One of the people who howled the loudest was Harold Bloom- a standard bearer known for his vitriolic defense of the ?Canon? ?all those dead white male writers who fell out of fashion, sadly enough, over the last twenty years.

Bloom called the award ?another low in the process of dumbing down our cultural life?. King he called ?an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.? And he expressed horror-no pun intended?that Stephen King would receive ?a lifetime award that has previously gone to the novelists Saul Bellow and Philip Roth?. (And also to Ray Bradbury, the science fiction writer, and Oprah, but let?s not quibble).

One might argue that King?s body of work does indeed fit the criteria for the award: the recipient is supposed to be a person who has enriched our literary heritage over a life of service, or a corpus of work. And Stephen King has caused more people to sleep with the light on than any other writer, ever. That should count for something.

But I am with Harold Bloom on this one, because I find it ironic-even hypocritical- that King was given a ?lifetime achievement? award from a group who has never considered his books eligible to win anything else. It is like McDonald?s receiving an honorary five-star rating for its invention of the Big Mac. Bloom is wrong about King?s writing- his early novels will scare the pants off you. But he is not wrong to complain that the National Book Awards are about something else. They are supposed to ENHANCE the reading public?s awareness of American writers.

Stephan King is a writer who enjoys rock-star-like devotion from his fans. He has more than 300 million books in print. His novels have been turned into over 70 films. I?d say he doesn?t need much more enhancing.