Monday, September 15, 2003

September 15, 2003
A Literary Award for Stephen King

Under pressure from publishers to shake up its sleepy image, the organization that presents the National Book Awards is planning to give its annual medal for distinguished contribution to American letters to Stephen King.

Mr. King's selection is the first time that the organization, the National Book Foundation, has awarded its medal to an author best known for writing in popular genres like horror stories, science fiction or thrillers. Very little of Mr. King's work would qualify as literary fiction.

Mr. King joins a list of previous recipients that includes John Updike, Arthur Miller, Philip Roth and Toni Morrison.

The foundation plans to announce the award today and present it at its ceremony on Nov. 19.

In interviews board members and the executive director of the foundation said they chose to honor Mr. King for a host of reasons: his storytelling skill, his promotion of less-established writers, his donations to libraries and schools and the sheer volume of his work, which has found a multitude of readers. Although the honor denotes a contribution to American letters, several board members said they also considered the cultural influence of his many works adapted for film and television.

Mr. King's award comes when publishers are pushing the foundation, which they largely finance, to stir up more attention for its prizes and for books in general. The National Book Awards occupy a kind of indefinite middle ground in the world of literary prizes. They are less hyped than the Man Booker Prize in Britain, sponsored by a private company to promote its name and marked by extensive public debate among its judges, and this year by a controversially long list of more than 20 finalists. But the National Book Awards are also less prestigious than the Nobel or Pulitzer prizes, which are given by endowed foundations.

Told of Mr. King's selection, some in the literary world responded with laughter and dismay. "He is a man who writes what used to be called penny dreadfuls," said Harold Bloom, the Yale professor, critic and self-appointed custodian of the literary canon. "That they could believe that there is any literary value there or any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy."

Richard Snyder, the former chief executive of Simon & Schuster, which is now Mr. King's publisher, and a co-founder of the awards organization, said, "I am startled every time you say it." He added: "You put him in the company of a lot of great writers, and the one has nothing to do with the other. He sells a lot of books. But is it literature? No."

Ten years ago Mr. King and another blockbuster author, John Grisham, bought tickets to the annual awards presentation on the premise that "that was the only way we were going to get in the door," Mr. King recalled in an interview. At the time, he said, he was pleasantly surprised then that "nobody treated us like poseurs and hacks, which I think was what in our hearts we really expected."

Still, he said, nothing prepared him for this kind of recognition. "When I was young, I used to think it should be easy to wed popular fiction with literary fiction. But as time went by and I got older, I began to realize how difficult it really is. I began to realize how many people are so set against it."

He recalled letters from students whose teachers had called him "a hack, a terrible writer, everything that is wrong with America," Mr. King said. "After 25 years of that, to get something like this is just so extraordinarily gratifying." When he learned the news, he said, "I got goosebumps."

Several board members said they believed it was time that the awards began to define "American letters" more broadly than just the kind of literary fiction read by an elite.

"It has to take more chances, and it has to explore different areas of writing," said Isisara Bey, a new board member who is also vice president of corporate affairs at the music division of Sony.

Board members said Mr. King's name had come up in its deliberations in previous years; Ms. Bey nominated him this year. She first began to appreciate his work, she said, when she was at Sony Pictures, and it released a film based on his novella "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption."

"His work has translated so well in so many other mediums," Ms. Bey said. "I really liked that it was not only good on the page, it makes great movies, I mean, really great movies."

Carolyn Reidy, a board member who is also president for adult publishing at Simon & Schuster, argued that critics often underrated Mr. King because of his commercial success. "This award is recognition that he shouldn't be underrated."

Ms. Reidy, one of 14 board members, said she did not recuse herself from the vote to select Mr. King because of her self-interest as his publisher. "That would be like having to recuse yourself from an election in which you are a candidate," she said.

Neil Baldwin, who has been executive director of the foundation since it began 15 years ago but is resigning after this year, said that choosing Mr. King matched the larger purpose of the foundation, which uses its awards ceremony to raise money and recruit writers to promote literacy.

For outreach to children, Mr. Baldwin said, Mr. King's stories are more accessible than, for example, the works of Susan Sontag, a recent National Book Award winner. Mr. King, who has his own foundations helping libraries, planned to return the $10,000 prize, Mr. Baldwin added.

None of Mr. King's books has ever won a National Book Award, which is given by juries of fellow authors who tend to pick fellow writers longer on literary prestige than book sales. But the foundation's board chooses the winner of the medal for a distinguished contribution to American letters, a kind of literary lifetime achievement award. Half of the board's members are book publishers and booksellers; the other half have experience in philanthropy.

Mr. King is receiving more elite recognition. In 1990 his writing began appearing in The New Yorker, first essays, and then short stories, one of which won an O. Henry Award.

Last year the critic John Leonard wrote a lengthy appreciation of Mr. King in The New York Review of Books, calling him "a high-school English teacher who may have hit it big with `Carrie' in 1974 but had never stopped reading the serious stuff." Mr. Leonard found in Mr. King's works traces of Thomas Hardy, Daphne du Maurier, T. S. Eliot, J. R. R. Tolkien and even Shakespeare.

Some in the literary world just shrugged about the award. "The words `distinguished contribution' are a little bit puzzling, but he is a good writer as popular writers go," said Jason Epstein, the former editorial director of Random House, who won the foundation's first medal. "I am not sure this was the original intent of the prize, but who knows about original intent?"

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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