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Culture

Issue: "Year in Review 2003," Dec. 27, 2003

A scary book award

The year's most telling event in the world of books came when the distinguished, high-brow National Book Foundation awarded the 2003 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to ... a new Hemingway? a new Faulkner? a new Hawthorne, Melville, or Twain? No. To the author of bestselling horror novels, Stephen King.

That stories about man-eating pets and evil automobiles would constitute a "Distinguished Contribution to American Letters" struck many observers as odd. The literary scholar Harold Bloom called the award "another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life."

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But the award recognizes some hard truths in the current literary scene. Publishing is increasingly dominated by blockbuster celebrity authors, whose books, designed to appeal to a mass audience, sell millions. Profits from the megasellers, in turn, subsidize the publishing of a few more "serious" authors.

The great Christian literary theorist Sir Philip Sidney said that literature should both teach and delight. In our current cultural schizophrenia, what teaches tends not to delight-or even to teach much, since "serious" authors often have no real beliefs. While what delights does not teach-again, since there are no beliefs-but amuses through sensationalism, sexual fantasies, or the catharsis of terror.

Stephen King is actually a talented storyteller. When he sets aside his formula of ordinary household objects going berserk, he can be quite good. In his address to the serious authors at the awards banquet, he urged them to read popular authors so that they stay in touch with their own culture. That is good advice. At the same time, popular authors might strive not just to cash in on their culture but to improve it.

What America read

The top 10 sellers for the year 2003 at Barnes & Noble bookstores give a snapshot of the culture. The biggest seller was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling. After the occult fantasy for kids was an occult fantasy for adults, The DaVinci Code, which presumes to construct a new Jesus that would be more in accord with contemporary tastes than the Christ of the Bible. (No, Jesus did not marry Mary Magdelene. He already has a bride. She is called the church.)

Three of the top 10 are diet books (Nos. 3, 4, and 10), all of which can be summed up in one sentence: Carbohydrates make you fat. There are three Oprah Book ClubÐtype books, which commendably try to bridge the gap between seriousness and popularity: The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (No. 5), The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (No. 9), and an excellent book about a horse, Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand (No. 6).

Despite the success of a number of conservative authors, they were beat out by Hillary Clinton, whose Living History came in at No. 8.

An explicitly Christian title did make the top 10: The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren (No. 7).

duking it out

Conservative voices are no longer shut out of the marketplace of ideas. In fact, their books proved so successful that some usually liberal-leaning publishing houses started special imprints just for them.

But liberals struck back. The result was a battle between conservative talk-show hosts, such as Bill O'Reilly and Michael Savage, and liberal comedians, such as Al Franken and Michael Moore.

The left really had no answer, though, for Ann Coulter, whose Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism held nothing back. Or David Limbaugh, brother of the rehabbing talk-show host, in his book Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War against Christianity.

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