Saturday, February 7, 2009

Can Stephanie Meyer Write?

As an English teacher, I regularly discuss the issue of quality writing with my students. In other words, "what's good?" Inevitably, the discussion addresses the issue of literature versus popular fiction, and lately it has been centered on the skill, or possibly the lack thereof, of Stephanie Meyer. For as long as I have been teaching, I have argued that there are great writers and there are great storytellers, and they are not always the same. In terms of literature, a great writer inevitably tells a great story. However, a great storyteller may not stand the test of time - there might not be any literary quality. Charles Dickens happened to be both, though there were countless popular writers during his time who never attained significance. In contemporary times, the debate has raged over writers such as Stephen King, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, James Patterson, J.K. Rowling, and, now, Stephanie Meyer. As an English teacher, I assert that J.K. Rowling is the only truly great writer. It seems one of these writers agrees, and he's not shy about stating it.

In this weekend's edition of USA Today, the lifestyle section reports on several celebrities publicly criticizing others. Among them, Stephen King says of the skill of J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer, "The real difference is Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephanie Meyer can't write worth a darn. She's not very good." Ouch. Though I have to agree. Strangely, Stephen King used to be one of my examples of a good storyteller who wasn't a great writer, though I have to give him credit for his knowledge in "On Writing." An important issue in this debate is the issue of popularity, and King acknowledges that. Sadly, Us Weekly's West Coast Bureau chief Melanie Bromley - who judges the spat - does not. Bromley incorrectly asserts "At the end of the day, it's the fans who are judging, and sales prove these books (by Meyer) are fantastic."

Actually, that's not true. Popularity does not equal quality. McDonalds serves 42 million people everyday, but nobody claims it is high quality food. No food critic worth his credentials would rave about the Big Mac, though they'd admit it tastes good. Similarly, the movies of Tom Cruise make billions, but no one with any credibility in judging the craft would argue Tom Cruise is a great actor. He's, quite simply, not. In fact, he doesn't act at all - he's Tom in every movie. The Academy is never going to call him, or Adam Sandler or Will Ferrel for that matter, a great actor. However, their movies are still immensely popular. Thus, Stephanie Meyer may be fabulously entertaining, but she'll never knock Harper Lee off the required reading lists of high school English departments.


Anonymous said...

Actually, Tom Cruise was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for "Rain Man", and Adam Sandler recieved much critical praise (and a few award nominations) for his work in "Punch-Drunk Love".

But point taken.

mmazenko said...

Valid point - I'd forgotten the Rain Man nod, though I don't agree with it. Punch Drunk Love is quite interesting, and I'll give Sandler much credit for The Wedding Singer.

Anonymous said...

It's Stephenie, not Stephanie, Mr. Mazenko. Other than that, great point.

Anonymous said...

Where is your #1 Best Seller? Those who can't. . . teach, or so it's been said.

Anonymous said...

Stylists vs storytellers, same as always. They are the two legs writers stand on to tell their stories.
Stylists can write beautifully---about nothing much at all. Without a good story, their work is about nothing, despite the fact it may well be on an acedemic reading list.
Storytellers can tell a great story, but without solid writing skills, it may not be readable. A great story no one can read and enjoy isn't much of an accomplishment, either.
Popular fiction vs literature, which is better? Apples vs oranges, which is better? Well, which do you enjoy reading more? Which leaves you with an experience to remember, taught you something, or made you see the world differently?
Me, sometimes I want an apple, sometimes an orange. I enjoy them both.