King of Literature
What came back were a few of the common and trite answers: everything from a sweeping novel with epic themes to books we're supposed to read even though we don't like them. I think all labelling is only marginally useful and then perhaps only to librarians and historians. The way I understand it, literary genres are kind of a recent invention anyway.
Today we may think of Hemingway as a writer of literature but I've read where that would have meant nothing to him; he simply wrote books. Charles Dickens was considered too popular to be literary when he was alive. Those accolades went to buddies of his like Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who is now all but forgotten, or even William Thackeray.
This got me to thinking about my own personal definition of literature but at best I can only come up with a partial one. I think like art, anything that a certain number of people call "art" is therefore "art." It doesn't need to be universally accepted as such (i.e. tattooing, soup cans) but it's arguing the point is like discussing how wet is water. For literature, I wonder if its chief quality must be one of something that lasts.
Dickens died in 1870 but he is still widely read for entertainment as well as for study. James Fennimore Cooper, Alexandre Dumas, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain and Herman Melville, all very different writers, have all lasted and been labelled as "literature." But what about contemporary writers publishing today? Is anyone producing "literature" right now?
Here's an answer that may surprise you. Take David Guterson's "Snow Falling on Cedars." This work clearly aspires to literature with its deep character portraits and epic themes. But the exacting descriptions of every incident in each character's past wears me down. If the author mentions a childhood relationship, the next chapter is about that relationship though its relevance to the current events of the story is indistinct. To me, this would fall in the "books we're supposed to read but not like" category. Will this book last? In fifty or seventy five or a hundred years, will this book be on a bookstore shelf (assuming there will still be such a thing as a bookstore shelf)? Who can tell, but I'd guess not.
Now take Stephen King as an example. I don't read King, but I've read him in the past in an attempt to understand his popularity. I read most of "The Dead Zone" but it fell out of an airplane when I had twenty pages left and I didn't care enough to find out how it ended. I read "The Dark Half" and while it was genuinely spooking early on, it turned into a mash of nothing at the end. "Misery" was a good book and left me with the impression that King could write well and produce a good book if he tried. I'm currently reading his second book, "'Salem's Lot," in another attempt to understand.
In 1993 King was awarded a controversial National Book Award, made so by his lack of literary pretension. This year he wrote "The Colorado Kid" for a small paperback publisher, Hard Case Crime (you should read everything they publish, a mix of vintage and original noirish or hard-boiled stories) and enabled the book to be sold for $5.99, far below the paperback prices of his other novels. I've read where he has taken smaller advances to allow for larger ones to be made to newer, "unknown" writers. By all accounts, he's a good guy, and a friend to writers, independent bookstores, and the written word.
Does a man who writes about vampires, telekinetic prom queens, homicidal resurrected house pets and the like deserve an award won by the likes of William Faulkner and Nelson Algren? At the time I wasn't sure, but with my evolving personal definition of "literature," I've come to agree that he does. In a hundred years, will John Grisham's books be on the shelves? Tom Clancy's? Possible, of course, but I wouldn't take the bet. Based on King's popularity over the past two decades, though, he'll be there.
His work will last, as has Dickens'. And like Dickens, he brought people who didn't normally read books into the bookstores and libraries and that achievment should never be overlooked. By the same token, J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame will be right there beside him and my hat is off to them both.
My personal feelings on King's work is decidedly mixed, but I'm trying to understand it. Now if I can just get through "'Salem's Lot" without hiding it behind a comic book like it's pornographic material...