Attention Conservation Notice: A few hundred words in the key of Someone Not On the Internet Is Wrong

Writing about public intellectuals a couple of weeks ago reminded me of how annoyed I was by a comment Tony Judt makes in Thinking the Twentieth Century. Judt contemplates the sales figures of even the most successful ‘intellectual’ book that he might write, and concludes.

if we knock ’em dead, we might hit gross sales of two hundred fifty thousand books across the world. That would be regarded as an altogether remarkable achievement for such a book. But you could also dismiss such sales as a mere bagatelle. Two hundred fifty thousand people, most of whom already agree with us. And many of whom will already know one or both of us and— directly or indirectly— will be pleased to have their views intelligently reflected back at them. You never know, there’s a decent chance that one of us— hopefully you— will be invited to discuss the book and its ideas by Charlie Rose. But you know that we will not hit a million or even half a million sales whatever happens. And we should not be ashamed of this because if we had, we’d be in the Stephen King class and would have betrayed our calling.

I don’t think that Judt specifically had it in for King – he’s presumably just reaching out for the name of any old author who writes bestsellers, and finding King conveniently close to hand. But his formulation (and the more general thinking that lies behind it) makes me want to hit something repeatedly. It’s not just that the unmistakable whiff of the #humblebrag rises from Judt’s description of the lonely role of the public intellectual in an America determined to ignore him. It’s that the claim that leftwing public intellectuals have betrayed their calling if their work is read by millions of people is ridiculous, obnoxious, and self-defeating.

And it’s especially ironic that Judt should write this about Stephen King. A couple of months ago, there was an interesting debate at the LA Review of Books (which I strongly recommend btw – a really great site), on whether Stephen King is a good writer (unsurprisingly, I’m firmly in the ‘yes’ camp). But even though he’s been embraced, gingerly, by the New York Times Book Review and the like, I haven’t seen anyone make the case that he’s an important leftwing public intellectual.

It’s an argument that King himself would probably wince at – he seems too much of a steak and potatoes guy to want to describe himself in such grandiose terms. Even so, I think the description fits. There’s a strong case to be made that his books and stories, taken as a whole, tell you more about the Matter of America than the work of any other living novelist. And they are not only deeply intelligent but politically intelligent. If you want to know what the US was really like under George W. Bush, you’ll probably find out more from reading Under the Dome (which is not even one of King’s best novels) than Ill Fares the Land. The ease with which a slick rightwing populism can slide into something approaching fascism. The ways in which community loyalties can sour politics or redeem them. The intertwining of politics and petty personal jealousies. King gets it all. He has both an understanding of American life that Judt (for his many intellectual gifts) lacked, and the ability to express that understanding in clear, unornamented prose that can speak to millions of people.

Presumably, Judt didn’t know this (I’d be startled if he’d ever even seriously considered picking up one of King’s novels, let alone read one, or thought about it). Instead, he used King’s bestsellers as a drive-by sneer at the kind of book that Serious People Who Write for the New York Review of Books and Appear on Charlie Rose could never write without betraying their vocation.

Judt was a wonderful historian, and, according to all the accounts that I’ve seen, a decent human being. But I don’t think he was a good model for the left. His disdain for popular communication goes together with a version of social democracy that emphasizes the ‘social’ at the expense of ‘democracy.’ One of the bits of Thinking the Twentieth Century that surprised me was how much Judt distrusted democracy, unless it had proper guidance. It gives the impression that the best of all possible worlds is an idealized version of postwar Britain, with disinterested and benevolent Keynesian Mandarins running the show for the benefit of those of lesser intellectual gifts. Nor was he was unique among his set in thinking this. When left thinkers think that public intellectualism involves writing for a public that solely consists of other intellectuals, and that writing for a mass audience is necessarily an act of betrayal, there’s something badly wrong. Or, to put it another way, any American left that doesn’t include people trying to do the very difficult and important things that Stephen King does, while keeping his readers entertained, isn’t going to persuade much of anybody.

[Cross-posted at Crooked TImber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.