This Week’s Column:


... a MobyLives guest column

by Steve Almond

29 September 2003 — In recent days, an opinion column written by the esteemed literary critic Harold Bloom has been making the literary e–rounds. Like most everything that makes the e–rounds, the piece is both trenchant and ridiculous. Bloom's basic point is that the National Book Foundation made an egregious error in bestowing its annual award for "distinguished contribution" to Stephen King.

Egregious may be too mild a word, though. Bloom seems physically pained (in the manner of gastric distress, one imagines) at the thought that authors such as Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth should now have to share this distinction with a witless hack like King.

To Bloom, who addresses us, as ever, from the ramparts of septuagenarian grumpiness, such reverence represents another example of our cultural idiocy. (Dumbing down is the phrase he favors.) His diatribe, not quite 800 words, also manages to fire broadsides at J.K. Rowling, the "fourth rate" playwright Aphra Behn, and a gaggle of female romantic poets "who just can't write." It is an impressive performance, one that may mark a new land–speed record in literary contempt.

For what's it worth, I don't entirely disagree with Bloom. I've not read any of the Harry Potter books, but I'll trust the old guy when he tells me they are riddled with clichés. And I happen to share his skepticism when it comes to the made–for–TV idea that the Cult of Potter has been good for literacy. What's more, the modern appreciation for the genius of Shakespeare and the Romantic poets is woeful.

What I don't quite get—and maybe this is because I haven't spent long enough in academia—is why Bloom feels it necessary to sound off against writers he deems inferior, as opposed to celebrating the writers (and the ideas) he admires. And, furthermore, why he chooses to do so in such a lazy manner.

I don't think there's any argument on the matter of whether Stephen King belongs in the same league with Bellow or Roth. But he's no hack. He is, at worst, an uneven writer, one who dips down into pulp, but also has produced—particularly of late—some genuinely moving prose.

But I don't think the merits of Stephen King are really the point here. The point, as I see it, is how most effectively to wake up our culture from its current stupor. By my reckoning, this is a job that falls to writers. Literature is nothing less, after all, than an ongoing discussion about what it means to be human. It is intended to awaken compassion within the reader and, when necessary, distress. King may not be doing as good a job as Bloom would like. But he is doing an honest job, at the very least, one I'm inclined to regard as heroic.

Bloom, on the other hand, can do little more than holler insults from the sidelines. Or actually, check that. In the penultimate paragraph of his sermon he graciously informs us: "Today there are four living American novelists I know of who are still at work and who deserve our praise." There are: Bellow, DeLillo, Pynchon, and Roth.

It's almost sad to see the Bloomster tip his speckled hand so flagrantly. This is all he can come up with? Is he kidding? No mention of Toni Morrison or Nadine Gordimer or Alice McDermott or John Updike or Evan S. Connell or Brad Watson. What cave is this guy living in? (Yes, I know, I know, Plato's.) Does he expect to be taken seriously by anyone other than the charter members of his faculty club?

There's an entire world of literature, quite serious and beautiful, that extends beyond these names, as worthy as they may be of praise. In carting out the usual suspects, Bloom reveals himself not as a critic, but as a caricature—a narrow–minded snob who reviles anything outside his intellectual comfort zone.

What's especially sad about Bloom is that he continues to pollute an otherwise vital message with fatuous derision. As someone who's been teaching literature to college students for several years, I'm in complete agreement with his basic complaint. It is entirely appropriate to lament—even rail against—the moral and intellectual sloth of our current historical circumstance. I, too, dread dealing with students who think that Hamlet was a really cool movie starring Ethan Hawke.

But today's youth are not about to drop their Nintendos and pick up copies of the Middlemarch at the behest of some sourpuss curmudgeon. (I'm not even sure Bloom wants that. He sounds altogether too protective of the canon to allow the vulgar multitudes at it.)

Indeed, Bloom's rage seems entirely misplaced to me. Rather than attacking writers, or those who bestow accolades onto them, he should be excoriating the true opponents of creative enlightenment. A short list would include: the deification of consumerism, the decline in funding for public education, the economic inequality that has become the hallmark of late–model capitalism. This culture discourages creativity, and deep thought, because such actions are not profitable. The horrible fact that people turn to Stephen King rather than Saul Bellow is, in other words, symptomalogy.

Of course, Bloom prefers not to involve himself in anything as messy as socio–economic debate. Lest we forget, he is a scholar.

And more's the pity. It would be nice to have him as an ally. I mean that. Bloom is a brilliant mind, and a true believer in the redemptive capacities of literature. Although he would be loathe to admit this, lurking beneath his petulant elitism is an egalitarian impulse. He knows that young people are turning away from the great books that might save them. But he fails to concern himself with why.

In my own view, it's NOT because Americans are dumb or lazy, but because they fear the chaos of their feelings. Our masters of commerce are quite happy with this arrangement. They want us in this state of terror, as it makes us more likely to obey their constant buy messages. The unexamined life, it might be said, offers an extraordinary profit margin.

But let's remember: it is the job of artists (and always has been) to awaken mercy, to help people feel less alone with their deepest, darkest emotions. And, of course, to encourage them to regard their minds as vibrant and expandable.

I'm certainly glad there's someone like Bloom around to shout down from his ivory tower every once in a while. He may even have the eloquence (or the catchy crankiness anyway) to make his voice heard for a moment or two.

He is not the cure, though. We writers are. We will achieve a greater measure of relevance not by tearing one another down, or making literature exclusive, but by working to promote our common goal, which is to get people reading, thinking, and feeling again.

Steve Almond's short story collection, "My Life in Heavy Metal," is out in paperback. Algonquin will publish his next book, "Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America" this spring. He runs the website He notes that he has not read "Middlemarch."

©2003 Steve Almond

Previous column; A FEW WORDS ABOUT BLURBS ... In a guest column, popular short story author Steve Almond offers his list of pet peeves about blurbists and the art of blurbing.


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