Ten Miles Square


September 20, 2012 10:53 AM Stephen King as Public Intellectual

By Henry Farrell

Attention Conservation Notice: A few hundred words in the key of Someone Not On the Internet Is Wrong

Writing about public intellectuals a couple of weeks ago reminded me of how annoyed I was by a comment Tony Judt makes in Thinking the Twentieth Century. Judt contemplates the sales figures of even the most successful ‘intellectual’ book that he might write, and concludes.

if we knock ’em dead, we might hit gross sales of two hundred fifty thousand books across the world. That would be regarded as an altogether remarkable achievement for such a book. But you could also dismiss such sales as a mere bagatelle. Two hundred fifty thousand people, most of whom already agree with us. And many of whom will already know one or both of us and— directly or indirectly— will be pleased to have their views intelligently reflected back at them. You never know, there’s a decent chance that one of us— hopefully you— will be invited to discuss the book and its ideas by Charlie Rose. But you know that we will not hit a million or even half a million sales whatever happens. And we should not be ashamed of this because if we had, we’d be in the Stephen King class and would have betrayed our calling.

I don’t think that Judt specifically had it in for King - he’s presumably just reaching out for the name of any old author who writes bestsellers, and finding King conveniently close to hand. But his formulation (and the more general thinking that lies behind it) makes me want to hit something repeatedly. It’s not just that the unmistakable whiff of the #humblebrag rises from Judt’s description of the lonely role of the public intellectual in an America determined to ignore him. It’s that the claim that leftwing public intellectuals have betrayed their calling if their work is read by millions of people is ridiculous, obnoxious, and self-defeating.

And it’s especially ironic that Judt should write this about Stephen King. A couple of months ago, there was an interesting debate at the LA Review of Books (which I strongly recommend btw - a really great site), on whether Stephen King is a good writer (unsurprisingly, I’m firmly in the ‘yes’ camp). But even though he’s been embraced, gingerly, by the New York Times Book Review and the like, I haven’t seen anyone make the case that he’s an important leftwing public intellectual.

It’s an argument that King himself would probably wince at - he seems too much of a steak and potatoes guy to want to describe himself in such grandiose terms. Even so, I think the description fits. There’s a strong case to be made that his books and stories, taken as a whole, tell you more about the Matter of America than the work of any other living novelist. And they are not only deeply intelligent but politically intelligent. If you want to know what the US was really like under George W. Bush, you’ll probably find out more from reading Under the Dome (which is not even one of King’s best novels) than Ill Fares the Land. The ease with which a slick rightwing populism can slide into something approaching fascism. The ways in which community loyalties can sour politics or redeem them. The intertwining of politics and petty personal jealousies. King gets it all. He has both an understanding of American life that Judt (for his many intellectual gifts) lacked, and the ability to express that understanding in clear, unornamented prose that can speak to millions of people.

Presumably, Judt didn’t know this (I’d be startled if he’d ever even seriously considered picking up one of King’s novels, let alone read one, or thought about it). Instead, he used King’s bestsellers as a drive-by sneer at the kind of book that Serious People Who Write for the New York Review of Books and Appear on Charlie Rose could never write without betraying their vocation.

Judt was a wonderful historian, and, according to all the accounts that I’ve seen, a decent human being. But I don’t think he was a good model for the left. His disdain for popular communication goes together with a version of social democracy that emphasizes the ‘social’ at the expense of ‘democracy.’ One of the bits of Thinking the Twentieth Century that surprised me was how much Judt distrusted democracy, unless it had proper guidance. It gives the impression that the best of all possible worlds is an idealized version of postwar Britain, with disinterested and benevolent Keynesian Mandarins running the show for the benefit of those of lesser intellectual gifts. Nor was he was unique among his set in thinking this. When left thinkers think that public intellectualism involves writing for a public that solely consists of other intellectuals, and that writing for a mass audience is necessarily an act of betrayal, there’s something badly wrong. Or, to put it another way, any American left that doesn’t include people trying to do the very difficult and important things that Stephen King does, while keeping his readers entertained, isn’t going to persuade much of anybody.

[Cross-posted at Crooked TImber]

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Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.


  • SteveT on September 20, 2012 10:38 AM:

    Stephen King does to be considered an intellectual. I recall reading an article by him where he intelligently discusses people's fascination with horror. He explained that it is like riding a roller coaster -- a safe way for people to experience "danger". He also traced how horror movies changed through history and how they paralleled the threats that the audiences were being frightened by in real life.

    Among King's works is a dystopian novel, "The Running Man" that can be compared to "1984", the novel by "intellectual" George Orwell. The novel that King wrote under the name Richard Bachman bears almost no resemblance to the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Written in 1982, it provides a chillingly prescient climax for post-9-11 readers as the hero crashes a jetliner into a skyscraper in a final act of defiance.

  • Darsan54 on September 21, 2012 1:45 PM:

    Among artists, there is an attitude where a person sells a lot of art and becomes financially successful they are no longer an artist, but a sell-out. I have always thought of this as self-defeating and useless thinking. I honestly believe to be a real artist you need to expose yourself to the public and the marketplace. Your success there doesn't determine your success, rather it's the bravery of putting it out there.

    Simple popularity should never be the only criteria in judging any intellectual activity. Bill O'Reilly constantly points out his audience is larger than anything on MSNBC. But by that criteria pornography has more creditability than BillO (and yes, I think there is a case to be made there, but that's another article).

    Judgments should be based on a number of criteria.

  • Crissa on September 21, 2012 4:46 PM:

    The only way they could've betrayed liberal values by selling that many is if they did it the way right-wing books do: By inflating the sales numbers by 'buying' and then socking away hundreds of cases of books in a warehouse somewhere; or by making it required reading at some certification or seminar.

  • critic on September 21, 2012 9:52 PM:

    I mean, yes, popularity doesn't mean the work is crap, but I'm not sure that really indicates he's a significant public intellectual. I mean, "From a Buick 8." really?

  • Jack G on September 21, 2012 10:18 PM:

    I completely agree that King is a good writer. My impression is that he is not political in the partisan sense, but since he writes about reality, he is much closer to left-wing thinking than modern day right-wing alternate reality.
    Having grown up in the sixties, I find his depictions of that time (i.e. Hearts in Atlantis, It) to be the best of any writer that I have read.

  • David Walker on September 23, 2012 8:27 PM:

    King's writing about writing is just about the best going around, too. (I'm one of the no doubt few who got introduced to his fiction through his non-fiction.)

  • TerryS on September 24, 2012 4:05 AM:

    "4th grade reading achievement levels (Percent) – 2011 - At or above proficient 32%"

    (Annie E Cassie Foundation)

    "American High School Students Are Reading Books At 5th-Grade-Appropriate Levels"

    (Huffington Post)

    "When the test was last administered, in 1992, 40 percent of the nation's college graduates scored at the proficient level, meaning that they were able to read lengthy, complex English texts and draw complicated inferences. But on the 2003 test, only 31 percent of the graduates demonstrated those high-level skills. There were 26.4 million college graduates."

    (The New York Times)

    Anything that get Americans (both children and adults) to read for pleasure is a good thing.

    As Caleb Crain argued in his excellent article “Twilight of the Books“ America is becoming an aliterate country. People know how to read (though not well on average) but they choose to not read, or read very little.

    (The New Yorker)

    Back before TV became the default entertainment, children actually spent their allowances on buying comic books. Not anymore. And adults read much, much more than they do today.

    Mr. Judt shouldn't be worried about the Millions of people who read Stephen King, instead he should be worried about the hundreds of millions of people who hardly read at all.


  • Roddy McCorley on September 25, 2012 11:46 AM:

    Steve T - good on you for the Running Man shoutout. I've been pointing to it for quite some time as a solid, serious dystopian novel that's on a par with Fahrenheit 451 if not Orwell and Huxley. Planes crashing into skyscrapers aside, it's prophetic about any number of other things. One of the features of the world King depicts is two economies - literally. There are two separate currencies, one for the rich, one for the rest. Guess which one is devalued to the point of worthlessness?

    Funny in our mania to remake 80s movies no one has picked up on the one movie that really should be remade.

    Anyway, if you haven't read The Running Man, check it out. It is, as they say, a great read.

    Can't remember where I came across this, but a Serious Author was asked who he thought people would still be reading in 50 years. SA answered, Stephen King and Elmore Leonard. I find both of those plausible.

  • POed Lib on October 10, 2012 12:03 PM:

    I read a lot, but mostly junk. I have an advanced degree, but I read Bernard Cornwall, Steven Saylor, etc.

    Junk can and does have a lot of substance. The substance lies in the way the junk is presented. I have learned a lot of history by reading junk. That is what historical fiction does - it presents truth packaged in an easily consumed manner. You can read "Rome: A History" which is 900 pages of endless repetition of Marcus, Cornelius, Julius, etc. Or you can read Steven Saylor, and get the history in a fun-filled package.

    I am one of a very few who argues that Dan Brown is a good writer. He has sold millions of copies.