Cheating a bit this week: I got caught up in a discussion via email with an old friend about Stephen King and what is and isn't literature, at least according to literary critics, and figured I'd save myself some typing and just paste it across. Hey, I'm not getting paid for this, you know. You want new and original, commission me.
"The whole literature-versus-populist thing is an argument waiting to happen in The Writing Class [the novel I'm working on right now, newbies]... I take the view that there are two extremes of literature, defined by how they use the story-telling mechanism. There are those pulp novels that are stories told by a basic, utilitarian model of communication, simply telling the story without trying to be clever about it, whose merits (if they have any - many do not) lie in the originality of the story itself; then there are novels that use the mechanism of storytelling to actually contribute to the related experience, whose merits (if they have any - many do not) lie in the style and mechanism, in the act of communication, rather than in the meat of the story.
"Examples: Ian McEwan's book Amsterdam - dull, DULL story told with great flair and style and acute communication of ideas, like a beautifully rendered painting of a really boring scene. Some people think this book is brilliant (it was Booker nominated and I believe it won that year) but others think it's boring claptrap (myself included). Joyce's Ulysses is another: a mundane story told via a unique and admittedly exciting and visceral mechanism, enjoyable in the sheer texture of it but impenetrable to people who like stuff to actually happen in novels ;) At the other end of the scale you have Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone novels, which are your basic pulp whodunits, tightly written with no unnecessary flair or flash, and very enjoyable for their precise focus and fast-moving plots. They work because of their narrative purity, not in spite of it, just as Ian Fleming's Bond novels did. Fleming could turn a phrase, it's true, but mostly he didn't: he tended to stick to the facts and tell you what you needed to know, which worked very well with a character as brutally practical as Bond.
"However, this is where it all starts to go a bit wrong: Fleming's style, terse and unstylised as it was, actively contributed to the character and the story by reflecting it. Which, by the definition above, makes it literary... I believe that most of what lines the shelves in bookstores is somewhere between these extremes, and even the most apparently pulp novel can be considered high art in a different context. Take Dickens: he was not a literary scribe, he was a mass-market serial writer, the Helen Fielding of his time - he is regarded as a literary figure now because we don't recognise his mechanism. At the time that mechanism was simple plain speaking, not a style: it conveys his work brilliantly because it is of its moment, not as a deliberate decision. The same can be said of Shakespeare, who was always a crowd-pleaser and wrote as the common people spoke... In a hundred years from now it will be Bridget Jones's Diary that is remembered and regarded as a classic, not bloody Amsterdam, I am certain.
"So, in a sense it is impossible to sort high literature from lowbrow pulp. It all depends on context and the position of the observer: like Schroedinger's cat a book is neither, and both, until you read it and decide what it is. But most people don't want to go to all that trouble so they have other people tell them what to think - these people are critics and their opinions huddle together for warmth to present the illusion of a united front of Good Literature to guard against the evils of Bad Genre. It is poor form for them to enjoy a story: they prefer to enjoy the mechanism, and it is this snobbery that means any story-heavy genre (like crime or science fiction or romance) is automatically disqualified as literature - if it were that good, they reason, it would hardly need a plot to hold it up, would it? ;)
"Speaking personally, most of my favourite books are interesting stories told with dizzying style - a lot of them are plonked into the category of 'genre' without any real justification, such as most of Neil Gaiman's work. I haven't read enough King to really get a handle on his style, but his stories are always interesting ones and this alone keeps him from being pulp as far as I'm concerned."
I am a very judgemental and mildly pompous email correspondent. Therein lies my charm, though. And yes, I do use emoticons in emails - I am British: tradition is important to my kind.