Literary Cretin

Happy Halloween! To celebrate the transition into the dark time this year I decided to read a horror story – a real classic. Stephen King’s The Shining. I had never read this book before, though I had seen the movie a thousand times. The first time was when I was eight or nine years old and my friend’s aunt let us watch it – and this was no edited for tv version either. I think it scarred me for life – so much that I went on to read quite a bit of Stephen King throughout my teenage years and now write books about…ghosts and murders.

I am almost done reading the book now and I am loving it. As well as a good read, I am appreciating the horror writing techniques. It is really well written and it is really scary. A few items I have liked: Danny sees the woman in the bathtub -all gross and dead – and she comes out and follows him and strangles him. Jack – the dad – goes to investigate and at first sees nothing at all, but when he turns away he hears the sound of the shower curtain being pulled closed. He turns back and he can see the shadow behind it – but he does not actually see the ghost at that point. I loved that. The sound of the shower curtain closing was the scarier element – more than actually seeing the woman. Also – the topiaries – which are not in the film. They move – but only when the observer looks away. My initial thought when reading the first of these scenes was that it was a little silly, but then it was a little scary, and now just thinking about animal shaped topiaries is giving me the heebie jeebies.

I think Stephen King is a good writer. Some of his work is better than others – and some of itI actually consider literary horror or just plain literary. So why do some people think he is a low brow writer? I am an English teacher – a high school English teacher who teaches the classics – and has begun incoporating YA lit into my classroom at least on a self selected read basis. King’s writing is a lot better than much contemporary fiction. Of course, much contemporary fiction is considered low brow too.

So what is good fiction? What is literature? Shakespeare? Well he was a low brow writer. He wrote for the uneducated masses and his work is rife with dirty jokes – some very dirty. Sure he also wrote about the human condition – but name one story that doesn’t. What about Steinbeck – or Melville – the great American writers – who also wrote about the human condition – but also wrote about the poor and desperate and adventure stories (respectively). Or Faulkner or Joyce? Is that literature? So bizarre it is nearly impossible to read?

What makes something “literature”? And, are we, who read – and/or write – with and/or for the masses, Literary Cretins? I don’t think so, but you tell me.