Henry Farrell has an interesting post about Stephen King's acceptance speech at the National Book Awards. He apparently urged the audience (and judges) to consider more candidates like himself in future - to consider more popular books, in effect. Shirley Hazzard (never heard of her) gave him implicit what for with her acceptance speech. Henry says he is of two minds and, since Henry and I have uncannily convergent literary tastes, one of his must be mine. So I'll sort of more defend the other.
There is nothing more embarrassing than to attempt to hold the highbrow highground when one's lowbrow competitors are, in point of painful brutal objective fact, better artists than you have any hope of being in a million years. By contrast, to be a lowbrow who doesn't appreciate highbrow stuff that's better than you will ever be in a million years? That's why they invented the term 'highbrow'. Because of the million years it takes your brow to crawl up your neanderthal face, while you draw bison on the walls. I honestly don't know where we stand at present. I, like Henry, have a serious, semi-scholarly interest in fantastic fiction, which is King's genre. I have so much affection for Stephen King on account of countless pleasant hours spent reading his first, second, third, fourth and fifth rate fat novels. He's a novelist I feel was my friend in junior high. I feel his influence seep through other writers - Neil Gaiman, for example. Whose first, second, third, fourth and fifth rate products I greatly enjoy. It makes me smile to feel King's influence spread. When I hear he won a prize I feel like I heard a friend won a prize. It hardly occurs to me to ask whether he deserves it.
That said, there's something to be said for the view that the last writer in America who needs a leg up into the limelight is Stephen King. Of course, if the award were need based, it would be given to someone who hasn't even finished his novel yet, because it sucks and always will.
I just don't know the state of 'serious' non-'fantastic' American fiction at present, come to think of it. The only writer I read comprehensively - and so can judge - who falls in that category is Russell Banks. Cloudsplitter, Rule of the Bone and The Sweet Hereafter were heartbreakingly beautiful. And one is a movie, but I haven't seen it. And I've seen "Affliction" but never read it. Banks hardly qualifies as a hard-luck case in need of publicity. I have some other contemporary American writers on my shelf that, one thing and another, I haven't cracked the cover of. Could be they exhibit fine craft values and gravitas and sensitive awareness of great work previous greats have done. Could be they lack stupidity; maybe they refuse to publish crap. Maybe they've got that and it ought, by rights, to filter down to the likes of King so he never writes a clunker again. Maybe, on the other hand, red-blooded pulp practitioners like King are presently needed so that their lively examples may reinfuse the dessicated works of MFA grads whose slight, predictable, mannered sterile offerings are justly remaindered. (Sort of a Harlan Ellison "Dog and His Boy" theme, then.)
Probably I should read more contemporary highbrow stuff nobody much reads and give fantastic fiction a rest once in a while. This happens with movies. I think I only like the lowbrow stuff, after a long day thinkin'. Then the knife-fights bore me. Then when I watch a real critic's darling that poisoned the box offices for miles around so everyone had to move away - why, I find that the critics liked it because it was better made. Life is complicated; it's hard to know what to read.
UPDATE: I should make clear, before someone informs me, that the whole lowbrow/highbrow, serious/non-serious axis is, of course, deeply suspect. I'm just sort of jollying it along, you understand.