Monday, July 12, 2010

Popular Writing vs. Meaningful Writing

This post was originally part of the Road of Writing post which I just finished. I sorta bridged into this one, and then I realized that I was writing a very long post, so I chopped it up into two chunks. This post is because recently I've been thinking about Mr. S. King and how he likes to construct writer-characters in his books. Misery, of course, centers around Paul Sheldon, a popular, well-known author, and in King's mirror novels The Regulators and Desperation a major member of the ensemble, John Marinville, is a popular, well-known writer.

Central to the personal emotional conflicts for both characters is the dichotomy between "popular" writing and "meaningful" or "real" writing. "Popular" writing, according to King, is the stuff that people buy, the paperbacks that are fun reads. "Real" writing is inherently less financially successful, but garners critical praise.

In Misery, King goes so far as to say that being known for writing "popular" books is one step above being a hack. Sheldon and Marinville hate writing popular material, but they know that writing popular material is what pays the bills. They love writing meaningful material, but they know that all the critical acclaim in the world won't feed them.

Fundamentally, King is discussing the antithesis between commercial and artistic success. To King, the two are mutually exclusive, which betrays a sad lack of faith in the discernment of the American reading public--a lack of faith which is all the more pathetic because it's warranted.

They say that you write best about that which you know. I think that in Paul Sheldon and Johnny Marinville, Stephen King has injected himself into his writing. King's work has often been the center of controversy; check out this column by Harold Bloom, written on the occasion of King's receiving the Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Awards.

I'm not going to weigh in on the artistic merit of popular writing. I don't believe that novels which are popular should be discounted because of their popularity, though; while American readers don't have a lot of discernment, their approval shouldn't be the kiss of death for literature.

This has been a very meandering post. I think I'm done now.

Long live autobiography!


Drew Barnes said...

So, all of the reading you did and it's King you blog about. Huh.

Ian the Pontificator said...

Hey, I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the awesomeness of The Polish Officer...and I told you my semi-embarrassment about reading Lee Child.

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