I met someone new recently. As with any new people, you ask him/her questions to get to know the person. So I asked him, “what are you planning to do for a career?” He said that he was aspiring to be a great writer and that writing is an outlet that lets him express himself that other ways can’t. Well, I was captivated by this and I wanted to know who his influences were. Well, I was expecting something that has had a big influence: people like Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Melville, Tostoy, Dostoevsky, Camus, or any other of the great authors that we read in high school or college. His answer shocked me: “Stephen King” he said. I was taken aback! Now, I’ve never read any Stephen King so I honestly don’t know how great his writing is. Maybe it is great, who knows? But I felt like I was cheated out of a great reply.
Was this in my head? I tried to figure out why I felt this way. I came up with some analogies:
Suppose that you meet someone and this person says that s/he wants to change the world, let’s say a philosopher. S/he says that these ideas and movements have really changed the way people have seen the world. Now, you might be moved by this or perhaps intrigued, so you might ask this person, who’s your favorite philosopher? What would you do if the reply was “Jon Stewart from the Daily Show.” I would feel that s/he gave the wrong answer. It’s not that I have anything against Jon Stewart. I have deep admiration for him and he is actually a bright guy, but I wouldn’t consider him a philosopher.
Let’s try another example: suppose the same situation happens again and this person says that s/he wants to come up with a theory that explains social behavior and that s/he wants to devote his/her life to sociology and move it towards progress. “Wow,” you think. This might be someone who’s going places. “Who’s your favorite sociologist?” you ask. You’re probably expecting Durkheim, Maslow, Comte, or even Marx. At least they made an influence. What would you do if the reply was “Bill O’Reilly?” Wow. I would honestly say that that was not a good answer. Now Bill O’Reilly does have a view sociology and he does recommend how society and culture ought to do things, but I would not consider him a sociologist by any means. So what gives? Why are these answers considered “wrong answers?”
I thought about this and I could only come up with two thoughts:
1. John Stuart Mill was a utilitarian but he really emphasized on the higher pleasures. In other words, intellectual pleasure was more important than basic pleasure. “It’s better to a dissatisfied Socrates than a pig satisfied” is one of his famous remarks. And by working on an intelletucal character, that will actually make you happier in the end. So Plato his higher pleasure philosophy, whereas Jon Stewart is lower pleasure philosophy. Durkheim is higher pleasure sociology whereas Bill O’Reilly is lower pleasure quality. Aim for the intellectual pleasure is the key. Now it sounds nice, but one problem I have with Mill’s view of utilitarianism is that it sounds so snobbish. I mean, something like Shakespeare is better than bowling, a symphony is better than a rock concert, an art gallery is better than a strip club. Schindler’s List is better than Dumb and Dumber. It sounds so snobbish and somewhat annoying. But there is the second option:
2. What do Durkheim, Comte, Marx, and Maslow have in common? They all have degrees. Well, Bill O’Reilly has a degree, but not in sociology. Jon Stewart has a degree, but not in philosophy. So is it the fact that they must have degrees in the professed subject? Well, that doesn’t work either. Plato, Socrates, Aristotle never got degrees yet they achieved a lot more than current philosophers ever could. I know some people nowadays that don’t have degrees yet they’re extremely smart in what they do. I also know people who do have degrees yet they don’t know shit one some of the stuff they’re talking about. So then why degrees? Maybe it has to do with the idea that it’s their profession. They are considered experts in that field. But then, how do we tell if someone’s an expert? Well, typically it’s because that person has a degree. Uh oh. We’re back to the problem again.
So that’s the dilemma. Maybe I’m missing something but I wouldn’t consider Stephen King one of the “greatest authors” or at least on the same caliber as Shakespeare, Mill, Durkheim, and Plato. But why not? What is considered an expert anyways? Is expertise something just random? Or am I just being a snob?
I love writing, and hope to become published someday, although I do not believe I am anywhere near the capacity I need to be as a great writer.
The man you just met,you said you were expecting a socially accepted answer for one of the “greats”.
Although Stephen King may seem like an easy out for someone who has not properly read or studied other intellectual writers, in my opinion Stephen King is a wonderful writer…for his genre.
He probably seems like the “Wal-Mart” of writers. The problem with that is, he is extremely smart and I have read over five of his books with much admiration for his creativity. To write as many works that intrigue and scare such a large number of people is pretty amazing.
Would you have been more impressed if he had said Edgar Allen Poe was one of his favorites simply because he is a deceased, famous author? It is of the same genre, and Poe was the Stephen King of his day.
I often find that only the “great artists” of our time never exist until they A)Die B) Die an agonizing death C)Some snobbish critic tells everyone that they are a historical figure while that person is alive, even though in ten years they might never be heard of again.
My Literature professor has a heart attack everytime someone claims that the Harry Potter series and the author is “one of the greats”.
But infact, J.K Rowling’s works could last for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. Would that then justify her work?
Your questions present a tough argument.
Expertise could be considered something that simply catches the attention of most people, however, Britney Spears I do not believe will be considered a great singer…maybe popular but not great.
On the other hand, who decides that a work, a thought, is considered intelligent and historically important?
Good questions…my stance is this.
Be an expert in your passion, be able to have a conversation.
If you love Stephen King and he is your inspiration, back it up. Perhaps you felt cheated because he is such a well known author, and this man did not emphasize specific points as to why the author is so important and amazing.
If someone took a philosopher who is well known and popular, who also happens to be a main inspiration to you, how would you feel when someone told you that it was “an easy out”?
My point being, you would be able to say, “No, and let me tell you why…” because you have thoroughly studied and are aware of why this philosopher is important to you.
“Greatness” is based solely on perception.
Hello Michelle, welcome. It’s interesting that you mention that they have to be famous in order for them to be considered a “right answer.” However, Stephen King is famous. So why am I still bothered by this answer? I really liked your breakdown of when an author becomes “great.” Perhaps the same things happens to any famous person.
I agree that you must back it up with some justification. Perhaps that’s what bothered me about this new man. He didn’t really give any reason as to why Stephen King was a great author. So maybe it’s the justification, it’s the reasons behind it that were lacking that I needed. But then another question comes to mind: why is it that, say, Edgar Allen Poe doesn’t need that much justification but Stephen King does (at least to me)? It seems that some authors, philosophers don’t need that much justification to exemplify why they are so great. What constitutes greatness?
This gets to Killer J’s concern. He says that “greatness” is based solely on perception. It could be, but I’m confused because I know you’re more into absolutes and objectivity. So how can greatness be based on perception yet you believe in absolutes and objectivity? Another thing: can you honestly say that the greatness of say, Mozart and the greatness of Britney Spears just comes down to perception? I don’t think I can honestly do that. I really want to say that objectively, Britney Spears is lower quality than Mozart. You can find numerous examples like that. So what constitutes greatness? Is it more justification? Is there some objective criteria?
Wow, good point. Maybe I haven’t thought this out enough. Can’t I have my cake and eat it too?
I guess my objectivity stance is more for issues related to morality, since I believe in God.
For man made matters of what is right or wrong, I think perception definitely has a role. Men can’t determine an absolute truth, since men are fallable (my rationale for being spiritual, not religious if you remember). I use the concept of perception on a daily basis for creating lasting change with my clients. So, for the arts, I like the idea of perception.
Ok, so objectivity deals with morality. Couldn’t objectivity deal with aesthetics as well? Maybe, after all they don’t have to depend on one another.
Killer J says:
If men cannot determine an absolute truth, then how can we ever find an absolute truth? Not only in arts, but in ethics as well? Does everything come down to perception?
Maybe there is a way to save perception but without falling into relativism. Nietzsche is that type of philosopher. He says there are no facts, only interpretations. However, his defining moment of art deals with the combination of tragedy and comedy. So plays from ancient Greece would be a good example. Perception may work in art, but there’s still something that says that something is better than another. But maybe that’s a perception too?
Another thought: Now while I like good books like Camus, Tolstoy and the “classics,” but I actually like the Harry Potter books. Likewise, I like the “great” movies like American Beauty and Schindler’s List. But I also enjoy Dumb & Dumber and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. So what gives? Why do I enjoy those “lower” quality movies and books? I’m thinking it’s because I’ve had both. I’ve experienced both types of arts and I can distinguish between the two. So maybe by acknowledging both types of qualities, it shows that I can at least distinguish different types. Maybe my problem is that there are certain people who have never had the “greats” or the higher qualities of movies, books or the arts. So maybe that’s my problem: as long as you’ve experienced both types and acknowledge the difference, then it’s ok to like both.
I don’t know. Does that still sound snobbish?
Just because a writer is contemporary or concurrent, doesn’t mean they’re invalid. While literary themes are timeless, I think it’s often easier to relate to current subject matter, especially with the speed of technoloy and the accelerating rate of change in society.
I totally concur with the statement that Stephen King is one of the greatest novelists both of our time, and ever. A recent offshoot (and many would say evolution) of books, the film, proves this point. IMDB lists King’s The Shawshank Redemption as the #1 or #2 movie of all time. I’m sure Shakespeare’s works (and inspired works) are listed in the top list as well, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find another author’s works ranked as high (he also penned Stand By Me, The Shining & The Green Mile also Top 250 award winners). Now I know you could make the argument that George Lucas has more movies on there, but those films aren’t nearly as story-driven as King’s. King’s books sell millions, and many literaray critics consider The Stand as the greatest novel written.
So would I personally say King beats out Shakespeare? No. But I find his work better than Bradbury, and his breadth of work far exceeds Harper Lee, Thoreau, Hawthorne, or Mellvile.
While I enjoy John Stewart, I don’t think that he’s a valid analogy, as he’s not in the same league as King in any faction, nor is he a philosopher, whereas King and Shakespeare are both authors.
So again, I think mainly you’re hesitant to put a contemporary author against the so called ‘greats’, simply because his works haven’t been around as long, which is extremely common in literature and art, and is beaten into our heads by teachers. So that’s my thought.
Man, it’s tough to say if you’re being snobbish or just stating your preference. A Stephen King fan might consider your taste in writing as archaic, boring, and dry.
That’s where perception comes in, I suppose. Maybe greatness is defined as one’s ability to connect to THEIR TARGET audience. King isn’t going your crowd. He’s trying to appeal to HIS crowd, which happens to be vast. He is great in his ability to appeal to the audience he is attempting to appeal to.
Hello Paul. It’s a good point. When I think of Stephen King, horror immediately comes to my mind. I forget that he does non-horror stuff such as The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption which I thought was real good. As for me being against it because he’s contemporary, I don’t know if that’s why. Camus is contemporary and I adore him as an author. In fact, most of the novels I read are mostly contemporary authors. I guess I have forgotten the fact that King has written good stories but I immediately think of horror, which (and this may be a prejudice) horror doesn’t usually translate into good stories.
As to Killer J’s reply, perhaps it deals with the Target audience. Well, what shall we say of a great author but never intended to publish, Emily Dickenson for example? Of course, one must keep the audience in mind when one is writing a story.
Is it possible to have a particular audience you cater your art too but not necessarily have any intention of actually SHARING it with your audience? In other words, Dickinson could have had some ‘type’ of audience she was directing her craft towards despite not intending to publish.
Some people that keep a journal may write to ‘an audience’ despite having extreme reservations for anybody reading it.