When Stephen King was announced as the winner of a medal for distinguished contribution to American letters in 2003, the eminent literary critic Harold Bloom said it was “a testimony to [the] idiocy” of the awarding organisation, the National Book Awards. On 10 September, no less than Barack Obama will present the novelist with the United States’ National Medal of Arts.
The highest award for artists given by the US government, the medal goes to those who are “deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support and availability of the arts in the United States”. King, author of dozens of bestselling novels ranging from The Shining to It, was described as “one of the most popular and prolific writers of our time”, who “combines his remarkable storytelling with his sharp analysis of human nature”.
“For decades, his works of horror, suspense, science fiction, and fantasy have terrified and delighted audiences around the world,” said the National Endowment for the Arts, in a citation that will be read by Obama on 10 September – a far cry from Bloom’s criticisms in 2003, when the critic and academic told the New York Times that King wrote “what used to be called penny dreadfuls”, adding that “that [the National Book Awards] could believe that there is any literary value there or any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy’’.
“I guess I’m going to be awarded the National Medal of Arts,” King tweeted. “I’m amazed and grateful. Congratulations to all my fellow honorees!”
The ceremony will also see National Humanities Medals given to authors including Jhumpa Lahiri, for “enlarging the human story [and] illuminat[ing] the Indian-American experience in beautifully wrought narratives of estrangement and belonging”, Larry McMurtry, whose “work evokes the character and drama of the American west with stories that examine quintessentially American lives”, and Annie Dillard, who “in poetry and in prose … has invited us to stand humbly before the stark beauty of creation”. The humanities medal honours “individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens’ engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects”.
Previous recipients of the National Medal of Arts include Ray Bradbury, John Updike, Philip Roth, Maurice Sendak, Harper Lee and Maya Angelou.