In news that seemed to momentarily shake the foundations of the literary world, it was announced last week that author Stephen King was selected to receive the National Book Foundation’s prestigious award for lifetime achievement, joining such previous honorees as playwright Arthur Miller and novelists John Updike, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Toni Morrison. King will receive the nonprofit group’s medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which includes a $10,000 prize.
Some book critics, who turn up their noses at popular, commercial fiction they deem has little, if any, literary value, undoubtedly snickered upon hearing the surprising news. (Wonder if they reacted similarly when acclaimed science fiction writer Ray Bradbury was bestowed with the honor three years ago.) King deserves the tribute, not only for his prolific literary output, but also for a career in which he has promoted and encouraged no less than two generations of readers.
On the other hand, I presume more than a few King fans, including those who never took a course in American literature and are undeniably less familiar with the works of his fellow honorees, are, as I am, pleased for him.
While King, who has written dozens of bestsellers, certainly doesn’t need the money — he’s one of today’s highest paid authors — he was, nevertheless, elated with the announcement to which he reportedly responded, “I got goose bumps …This is probably the most thrilling thing since the sale of my first book."
That novel, "Carrie," published in 1973, has sold millions of copies and was made into a popular feature film. Early in his career King was primarily lumped into the horror genre, but he gradually shifted to writing less gory, but no less gripping tales ("The Dead Zone," "Firestarter," "The Stand") about good versus evil. While many of early King books, such as "Salem’s Lot," "The Shining," "Christine" and "Cujo," left readers sleeping with a light on, others, like "Misery," "Gerald’s Game" and "Dolores Claiborne," were nightmare-inducing, page turners.
King stories like “The Body,” which became the hit movie "Stand By Me,” or “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” the basis for the hit, "The Shawshank Redemption," and “The Green Mile,” may never be branded high art, but in the written and celluloid forms they are certainly worthy popular culture standouts.
Until now, King had been shut out when it comes to literary awards, except for a 1996 O. Henry prize (wonder if the award’s namesake merits elite literary approval) he received for his short story, "The Man in the Black Suit."
While King’s literary skills are questioned by a few who probably consider his selection debases the award, the author’s popularity is indisputable. A recent Internet check turned up over 1.5 million web sites with a Stephen King reference. Furthermore, over the last 30 years, there have been about 70 films, television movies and miniseries produced, based on King’s novels, novellas and short stories, an accomplishment cited in the Guinness Book of World Records.
King will formally receive his award in November. In keeping with his altruistic endeavors, the author announced he is donating the monetary prize to the National Book Foundation, to support the group’s various educational and literary programs. Surely there aren’t many writers who can afford to do that, which is one of the reasons why Stephen King deserves the "distinguished contributions" honor to be bestowed upon him. Over the course of his career, King has made numerous scholarships grants to high schools in his native Maine and contributed millions of dollars to local libraries through a foundation he established and controls.
When this King is gone, he will not soon be forgotten. And, though it is highly unlikely his work will ever be mentioned in the same breath as noted American authors John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, there are millions of readers whose lives may have been enriched by a writer who has the talent to spin one heck of an exciting yarn.