Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Steven King, Schlock or Genius?

The first book I ever read by Stephen King was "The Stand" when I was about 14. I loved it, but I never confused it with literary greatness. King told a good yarn, and that's always been his thing. I read a few more books, but the yarns got increasingly feeble, and I eventually decided that King just really didn't like writing anymore, since his books seemed to peter-out before they got to the end.

But, despite the fact that his writing quality has gone down, the accolades for King have gone up. Sam Sacks on King.

To me, it all goes back to this idea held by a lot of people who analyze literature for a living, who say, If we let the rabble in, then they’ll see that anybody can do this, that it’s accessible to anyone. And then what are we doing here?


With serious literature (or at least the chimerical “idea” of it) thus -tidily quarantined to a few fusty English departments, the noble fight to reclaim writing for the people could commence, a struggle that reached a rhetorical peak in 2003, when King was honored with the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. This event was an opportunity to prove to the public that you were not a snob. Lev Grossman in Time celebrated the overthrow of the Western canon. In USA Today, Samuel G. Freedman wrote an essay called “Stephen King Deserves Award for Creating Readers,” attributing to King heretofore unknown divine powers. And straight from central casting, Harold Bloom emerged as the perfect foil to the popularizers, grumbling that King writes “what used to be called penny dreadfuls.” In his acceptance speech, King acted as the peacemaker, magnanimously hoping that the “award means that a bridge can be built between so-called popular fiction and so-called literary fiction.”

King certainly writes popular fiction, but is it literary fiction?

Because the truth is that, as praise for his books has become a shibboleth for open-mindedness, King himself has become one of the worst writers in America.

Become is the key word here. The decline of King’s work is not the fault of the horror and suspense conventions his books hew to. All writers are beholden to conventions of one kind or another, and it’s what they create within those strictures (or how they subvert them) that defines their art. The hallmark of horror is to visit the macabre upon the ordinary, and much of King’s earliest work does this very successfully.

Those would be known as his "good books." "The Stand", "Salem's Lot", "Carrie", "Stand by Me", "The Shining." "The Green Mile" was a pretty good book, although it came after a whole bunch of really crappy ones.

In his succeeding books, with his popularity exploding, King tilted his focus to scheming up ingenious guises for his malevolent forces to assume. We got a murderous Plymouth, Saint Bernard, zombie child, spinster nurse, and so on. The evil tended to be explained in terms of psychosis, which relieved King from the burden of providing any rationale for his killers (later he would make them aliens, who are equally inexplicable). People turned to these books for shrieking and viscera, and they left satisfied.

Cough, cough. I wasn't satisfied. I wanted my money back. "It", "Skeleton Crew", "Thinner", "Christine", "Pet Cemetary", and (OMG) "Tommyknockers."

That last one's sins were especially egregious. My complaints with King focus on the story/yarn [or lack thereof]. But there are other, more "literary", problems:

Thus, as early as 1990, a shorthand had emerged in King’s writing, in which massaged clichés (a garden of fear, suffocating fear), redundancies (utter loathing and contempt), laundry-list sentences, italics, and, elsewhere, the CAPS LOCK key do all the work on the writer’s behalf. In these books even the dialogue, once original and often comic, begins to parody itself, exaggerating the New England dialects and salt-of-the-earth aphorisms. King’s small-town backdrops feel increasingly like movie sets that he can trundle from one book to the next.

It’s no exaggeration to say that in the years that have passed, every single one of these lazy writing habits has metastasized to ugly proportions, so that the same Stephen King who wrote a pietistic memoir about his craft (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, 2000) and was anointed in the country’s most-read book pages as a modern-day Hugo ...

So, next up we have King's treatise on fascism in America: "The Dome."

Baffling claims have been made that King is providing an astute vision of modern American life; but really, from the first pages of Under the Dome, you feel trapped in King’s private and intensely self-referential echo chamber, bouncing back and forth between famous movies and King’s own books. I found no less than three directmentions of King’s prior work, including the depressingly accurate observation that what’s happening here is “exactly like in that movie The Mist.”
The dome, you see, is allegorical, a kind of intergalactic lesson in human kindness. The novel ends with a chapter of sententious moralizing about the importance of empathy that would be awful in any book but that is doubly galling from an author who has shown such sophomoric gusto in crashing things into his glass dome, including a fully loaded 767 passenger plane.

I'm going to pass on "The Dome." As I've passed on almost everyone of his his books since "Tommyknockers."

Here is Wiserbud's take on King.