Category Archives: literary feuds

Stephen King vs. Stephenie Meyer

The dither continues over comments Stephen King made late last week regarding the writing skills of several other writers, including Erle Stanley Gardner, Dean Koontz, and James Patterson.  But it was his comments on Twilight author and phenom Stephenie Meyer that created the greatest uproar.  Here’s King on Meyer:

“…when [Richard] Matheson started to write about ordinary people and stuff, that was something that I wanted to do. I said, ‘This is the way to do it. He’s showing the way.’ I think that I serve that purpose for some writers, and that’s a good thing.  Both [Harry Potter author J.K.] Rowling and [Stephenie] Meyer, they’re speaking directly to young people. … The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.”

I read those comments to my daughter Madi — whose 12-year-old wheelhouse is the target at which Meyer is aiming — and she politely harummphed in disagreement.  And knowing I’m a devoted Stephen King fan, she encouraged me to read the Twilight series and decide for myself, rather than taking Stephen King’s word for it.  “I know you like him,” she told me rather flatly, “but I don’t want you thinking Stephenie Meyer is a bad writer just because he says so.”

The irony in Stephen King’s remarks, of course, is that many people have said the same of him — that he’s a great storyteller but a terrible writer.  Me, I love Stephen King.  Ever since a ninth grade English teacher of mine babbled effusively on about The Shining and encouraged me to read it — which I did, in the form of a dog-eared paperback I checked out of the library — I’ve been a fan.  But really, I don’t care if he’s considered a good writer or a bad writer.  He entertains me enormously and, at times, touches me. I consider that enough.

And that’s why I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with his opinion of Stephenie Meyer — who I’ve never read and, despite Madi’s suggestion, don’t know that I will.  But Madi reads her faithfully — and once she finished the Twilight series, she moved on to Meyer’s more adult novel, The Host, which she’s been devouring for the past week.

On Saturday night, as we were driving back from a volleyball tournment in one of the more rural parts of Maryland (Madi’s team placed third, thank you very much), Madi was sitting quietly in the back seat, reading The Host with the help of her booklight.  Thirty minutes into the drive, over the sounds of the radio, I heard her softly sniffling.

“Did your book just get sad?” I asked her.

Chin quivering, she informed me [***SPOILER ALERT**] that a character she really liked had just died, then put her head down and kept reading.  Moments later, she began choking back sobs and smearing away tears with her palms. 

She took the tissue Barb offered her and dabbed at her eyes, explaining what had happened and still crying, but also laughing at her own deep emotion.  It was, I think, one of the sweetest things I’ve ever seen.

And that’s why I can’t come down on Stephen King’s side on this one.  Say what you will about Stephenie Meyer, but she entertained my Madi.  She genuinely touched her and moved her to tears. And regardless of whether I ever read Meyer or not, that moment was enough to make me a fan.

"Who Reads An American Book?"

I point you with amusement toward this interesting bit of literary playgrounding, courtesy of the Associated Press:

Nobel literature head: US too insular to compete

STOCKHOLM, Sweden—Bad news for American writers hoping for a Nobel Prize next week: the top member of the award jury believes the United States is too insular and ignorant to compete with Europe when it comes to great writing.

As the Swedish Academy enters final deliberations for this year’s award, permanent secretary Horace Engdahl said it’s no coincidence that most winners are European.

“Of course there is powerful literature in all big cultures, but you can’t get away from the fact that Europe still is the center of the literary world … not the United States,” he told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Tuesday.

Speaking generally about American literature, however, he said U.S. writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” dragging down the quality of their work.

“The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” Engdahl said. “That ignorance is restraining.”

(Click here for the article in its entirety.)

Apart from the “I know you are, but what am I?” tone of the remarks, I got a kick out of this because it sounds remarkably similar to the condescending tones Europeans used when tut-tutting American writers in the 19th century.

At that time, of course, Americans had something to prove. Despite defeating the most powerful army in the world during the American Revolution — and even as a teeth-gnashing Thomas Jefferson provided foreign skeptics with skeletons to prove that American mammals were as large, or larger, than their counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic — Europeans were convinced that Americans, for the most part, had merely gotten lucky. As far as Europeans were concerned, Americans were mentally, physically, and culturally deficient.

While Horace Engdahl might sniff that American writers are “insular” or “too sensitive to trends,” his complaints are strictly amateur hour when compared to those of 19th century critic Sidney Smith, who blasted all things American in the January 1820 issue of the Edinburgh Review:

“The Americans are a brave, industrious, and acute people; but they have hitherto given no indications of genius, and made no approaches to the heroic, either in their morality or character. They are but a recent offset indeed from England; and should make it their chief boast, for many generations to come, that they are sprung from the same race with Bacon and Shakespeare and Newton. Considering their numbers, indeed, and the favorable circumstances in which they have been placed, they have yet done marvelously little to assert the honor of such a descent, or to show that their English blood has been exalted or refined by their republican training and institutions…

“…they have done absolutely nothing for the Sciences, for the Arts, for Literature, or even for the statesman-like studies of Politics or Political Economy…

“In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue? . . .

“When these questions are fairly and favorably answered, their laudatory epithets may be allowed: But, till that can be done, we would seriously advise them to keep clear of superlatives.”

Suffice it to say, Americans were not amused–and it was in this rather poisonous atmosphere that an upstart American writer named Washington Irving dared to publish The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon in London in the spring of 1820.

The Sketch Book had been well-received on its publication in the United States in 1819 — rightly so, as it’s the book that contains “Rip van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” — and now, in an effort to protect his copyright from European piracy, Irving nervously issued a version of his book in the English market, under the imprint of London’s most distinguished publisher, John Murray.

The Sketch Book not only sold spectacularly well — it can, in fact, rightly be called America’s first international bestseller — but it won over even refined British readers, who grudgingly conceded that this American upstart could write. “Everywhere I find in it the marks of a mind of the utmost elegance and refinement,” wrote a surprised William Godwin, “a thing as you know that I was not exactly prepared to look for in an American.”

So, there you go, Horace Engdahl. European disdain for American writers is as old as American publishing itself. American writers have heard it all before, and they’ve generally proven the critics wrong. I’m confident that American writers will continue to rise above such condescension and defy such expectations — for their ability to do so is also as old as American publishing itself.

Thanks to Brian D for bringing the AP article to my attention!