It is a truth universally acknowledged that any book in possession of popularity must be in want of literary merit. If it sells well, it must be lowbrow. And, when other popular writers are the ones to say this, it causes no end of fuss.
Last year Stephen King, the king of high-selling horror, took a pot shot at one of the biggest names out there, Stephenie Meyers. “Both Rowling and 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 damn. She’s not very good.”
There was uproar. Not very good? Meyer’s star is currently at its peak, and her huge army of Twilight fans (or Twi-hards) were aghast on her behalf. According to some sources, they suggested drowning Stephen King in hate mail. (Bear in mind, Stephen King is a man in poor health in his sixties. You’d probably only need one small bag.)
Not very good? As of March 2010, the Twilight series has sold over 100 million copies and been translated into at least 38 different languages. It has inspired major movies, parodies and countless fan sites. How do you quantify “good” in something as subjective as writing if not by how many people like it, her fans asked? Meyers herself did not join the indignation. Some Twilight fans thought this might be because she was richer than the Queen and doesn’t care anymore. Perhaps Meyers was too busy drowning under cheques to respond to poor Stephen (who was, presumably, drowning in hate mail written on scented paper and in red ink)?
But, while it is true that the Twilight saga is selling by the bucketload, what the Twi-hards seem to miss is that popular authors taking a pop at each other is a time honoured tradition. And Stephen’s off the cuff insult was relatively mild compared to what some authors have had slung at them.
Jane Austen was the popular author of her day, but not everyone liked her. Fortunately didn’t live long enough to hear Mark Twain declare her so poor a writer he thought of desecrating her grave.
I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.
Mark Twain’s writing wasn’t so great either, according to William Faulkner. He believed the moustachioed Twain “[a] hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the old proven sure fire literary skeletons with sufficient local colour to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.” Likewise, Evelyn Waugh was unimpressed by French novelist, Marcel Proust. “I am reading Proust for the first time. Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective.”
And acccording to James Dickey; “[if] it were thought that anything I wrote was influenced by Robert Frost, I would take that particular work of mine, shred it, and flush it down the toilet, hoping not to clog the pipes…”
It makes Stephen’s fit of pique look almost cute.
Meyer has not responded. Perhaps she recognises the clacking of typewritten literary insults for what they are – a membership card to the club of lucky authors whose books are popular enough to merit discussion by other authors. Perhaps she realises that Stephen King is, in his own snarky way, welcoming her onboard to the Big Boys club.
Or perhaps she’s still struggling under her royalty cheques.
For the record, I love King, like Austen, enjoy Twain and couldn’t get past Book 1 in the Twilight Saga. I haven’t read Faulker. He’s on the list of authors-I-swear-I-will-read-someday but keeps getting dumped for travelogues and chick lit. It’s a long list, full of very worthy books and authors, and probably a post for another day.