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Do Critics Have to Pay Attention to Popular Works?

Terry Teachout published yesterday on his blog About Last Night (November 20, At the National Book Awards) his impressions of the National Book Awards ceremony and the speeches of Stephen King and the other honorees. (He was one of the judges, on the panel for nonfiction.) He has since published a response to the numerous messages he received today (King's X). You can see a picture of Stephen King that night in the article in The Guardian's Books section (November 21, Stephen King makes a prize call for populism), in which he is quoted as saying of the disdain of the literary establishment for popular genre fiction,

"What do you think," he asked, "you get social academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?"
The speeches should eventually be published on the Web site of the National Book Foundation. King's basic point, lamenting the divide between popular and literary fiction, seems a silly thing to say when receiving an honorary award from the National Book Foundation. Yes, there was some backlash from literary types about King receiving the award, but King's award seems to indicate that the divide has already been more or less closed. Most literary critics are aware of popular fiction, and some of them probably read popular fiction, but that surely does not mean that they have to think it's worthy of serious comment. This will almost certainly not change because of one year's honorary National Book Award. On the other hand, I think what the NBF is trying to say with this year's award, as they said by honoring Oprah Winfrey in 1999 for her book club, is that lots of people read because of Stephen King. He has mastered an accessible, fluid style that keeps people buying his books and turning the pages. Ultimately, that is a good thing for the world of books and publishing.

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