Matt Cheney at The Mumpsimus has put up an interesting post in which he grapples with the question of whether there is "artistic merit" in the fiction of Stephen King. It seems to me, however, that King has himself implicitly dismissed this question in the comments he has made about the literary elite's disdain for "popular fiction": this disdain, King seems to be saying, comes precisely from expecting too much "art" in one's fiction. He thinks fiction is about immediacy of effect and storytelling, not from style or formal manipulations or other fancy-pants stuff. There are obviously millions of readers who agree with him, and if he and they don't particularly care for art, that's ok with me.
As it happens, Maine PBS ran an interview with King just a few nights ago. (A transcript is not yet available, but some brief clips are available here.) King again made some remarks similar to the ones he made at the National Book Awards ceremony, although in this case he complained about the "intellectual games" that some writers play, insisting that such games are inappropriate in works of fiction. "Literature" is instead about the "sweaty embrace" (I'm not sure this was exactly the term he used, but it's close) that fiction makes with the reader willing to do his share of the perspiring as well. The working-class sensibility King is trying to evoke with this image is pretty obvious, as was his choice of John Updike as the primary culprit in the literary crime of intellectual game-playing.
King didn't elaborate much on why Updike in particular is guilty of this crime (just that, in King's words, Updike "drove me crazy"), but it was pretty clear that he had Updike's style in mind. (He also linked him with Jonathan Franzen, for, I assume, the same reason.) Now, John Updike is actually one of the least "intellectual" writers I can think of. Updike's fiction is all about surface, sensual detail, about capturing the look of things through equally sensual verbal tropes. And he plays few games with form, at least in the fiction for which he is best known. It can only be Updike's effort to write well that bothers Stephen King, and his comments strike me as implicit arguments that writing well in this way isn't worth the bother. Furthermore, later in the interview King agreed that his own novels could indeed be read as "allegories"--something about exposing the American unconscious in times of uncertainty. Of all the narrative forms a writer might take up, allegory is among the most "intellectual". Allegories are vehicles for thought, ways of proposing "ideas." So it really can't be that Updike is too intellectual; he just writes too damn much.
Of King's now infamous speech at the NBA ceremony, Matt proposes that "King unfortunately fell into the trap Harold Bloom prepared for him, issuing broad generalizations to castigate his audience. What I'd hoped he would point out -- because, as Danse Macabre proved, he can be an occasionally insightful critic -- is that there are different ways of reading and valuing books, and perhaps there is some overlap within the standards those different ways of reading assume." I wish Matt was right in assuming King would accept some such formulation. But in the interview King was very categorical. Literature was about the sweaty embrace and that was that. The insistence on retaining the word "literature" for what he does unfortunately reminds me of those doctrinaire Christians who on the one hand castigate science as unreliable, mere theory, but who on the other hand go to great pains to make their own creationist theories sound as scientific as possible. It suggests some lack of confidence in one's underlying beliefs.
I entirely agree with Matt Cheney's conclusion that popularity, or the lack of it, has no bearing on how accomplished a given writer's work might really be. I especially agree that "good critics make clear what aspects of a work they value or disdain, being careful to avoid too many categorical judgments." I'm perfectly willing to believe that Stephen King has written some fiction I myself might like, that among all those novels and stories he's produced there are a few that will stand "some sort of test of time." Although I must say that if King were less defensive, and could himself see the merit of other kinds of fiction less dependent merely on what Matt calls "tremendous narrative momentum," I would be more willing to seek out these works and give them a chance.