Commenting on the idea that readers of Stephen King's books are at least reading, Steve Mitchelmore questions "the assumption that reading is an incontrovertibly good thing." "What this good is exactly is never addressed," he adds. Further:
. . .those who defend novels on such non-literary grounds are more preoccupied with appealing to "a higher platitude of, supposed, superior existence through Literature or Art". . .than those who want simply to explain why writers like Stephen King cannot be compared with certain other great writers; a purely literary explanation. . . .
I certainly agree with Steve in regarding skeptically the notion that reading just anything is, ipso facto, a superior use of one's time. There's nothing inherent in the act of confronting words on a page (or a screen) that makes it a more worthwhile focus of attention than, say, watching movies or tv. (And most people who make the "at least they're reading" argument are presumably hoping to wean people away from the modern visual media.) Some films and television shows are indeed better uses of one's time than most books. I'd surely recommend that anyone looking for an hour's worth of non-trivial entertainment watch House before picking up something at random from the New Fiction section at Border's. And Stephen King's own work helps to illustrate the fallacy of the "just anything" argument as well: Film adaptations of King's fiction such as Brian De Palma's Carrie and David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone are infinitely superior to the novels on which they're based, which in my opinion don't rise above the level of poorly written, sub-gothic trash. (There, I've said it.) These directors made cinematic art out of books that are not merely hack work, but hack work of even dubious "entertainment" value. (I, at least, have never been able to see what readers find entertaining in them.) They made films that used the medium in inventive and challenging ways that totally elude Stephen King in relation to his own medium.
Thus, not only is Stephen King inferior to "certain other great writers," his books can't be compared to the work of certain other accomplished filmmakers, who sometimes are using the same "material." And who would guide younger readers/viewers to run-of-the-mill literary fiction before, say, the films of Robert Altman? There are, in fact, only a handful of contemporary novelists whose books I would have turned to before I would go to see the latest Altman film. If the choice for young people is reading a trashy novel or watching a trashy movie or tv show, perhaps the marginally better option is the novel (if only to stretch their attention spans somewhat), but really I can't see it is any kind of intrinsically "good thing" for them to engage in either of these activities.
I'm not sure that those who take the reading-is-good-for-you position are more highly invested in the idea of a "superior existence through Literature or Art" than those who merely critique on literary grounds the individual works of writers like King, as Steve suggests. They probably are invested in "literacy" as a social ideal--and I don't think illiteracy is an acceptable alternative--and from this perspective they really aren't interested in Literature at all: Any port in a storm will do. They are perhaps still holding on to the model of the "general reader" as a paragon of democracy, but I myself don't think it does democracy much good if we settle for schlock simply because it manifests itself in print between two covers.