October 22

3 comments

Stephen King doesn’t know how good he is

This essay in the New Yorker, on Stephen King, is excellent. When I first saw that post’s title on some other website, I wasn’t optimistic, expecting a brief appreciation of King’s strengths enclosed within a polite but lengthy catalogue of his literary weaknesses. It’s hard, after all, to make a fully encompassing judgement of King: his work is so voluminous and so uneven.

Joshua Rothman’s account, however, takes a new path:

“Doctor Sleep” underscores an interesting fact about King: he’s not really, or not exclusively, a horror writer. If there were a Stephen King Plot Generator somewhere out there on the Web, it would work, most of the time, by mashing up ideas from all of what used to be called speculative fiction—including sci-fi, horror, fantasy, historical (and alternate-history) fiction, superhero comic books, post-apocalyptic tales, and so on… “Horror,” in short, is far too narrow a term for what King does. It might be more accurate to see him as the main channel through which the entire mid-century genre universe flows into the present.

I love this.

I also love Rothman’s canny distinction between observation and imagination, between truth and lie, a standard of value, he believes, so powerful in today’s literary world that even King has succumbed to it.

King has asserted, Rothman says, that “you can judge a novelist by how honestly he tells “the truth inside the lie” of his fiction.” Whatever else is happening in a story, if it resembles life, real life, then it has real value. King’s work, by that lens, is primarily of interest for its small town settings, its brutal families, its real life concerns.

Rothman takes King to task for this platitude. Why is “truth” the only important thing, and the “lie” the regrettable surface you have to wade through to get it? Why should anyone have to read a novel about time-travelling vampires in order to learn about the pain of having an alcoholic father? Why can’t they read it, primarily, for the time-travel?

Why should King have to apologise for the very thing makes him so good, or have to pass himself off as Alice Munro’s more wordy cousin?

We literary types downplay the importance of the lie of fiction. We’re too eager to charge at nuance, to leap at subtleties. We expect, Rothman says, writers to excel at “observation” rather than “imagination,” because we see real world observation as “respectable, useful, intellectual, and verifiable.” We feel guilty for praising imagination alone.

What Rothman doesn’t say, but which follows from his argument, is that in praising “observation” over “imagination,” we are also praising second readings, deep readings, scholarly readings, over the actual lived experience of turning the pages of an exciting book. If Rothman is right, then we literary readers are too fond of treating reading like work, into an essentially moral activity (in the dullest sense of the word).

On the other hand, one of the commenters to Rothman’s piece expresses the regret that King never was assigned or sought out an editor of the skill and diligence of a Maxwell Perkins, and I think it’s a keen point. King’s work does so often feel wandering, bloated and over-long, his self-references at times deeply self-indulgent: just as literary writers have been hurt by their pursuit of seriousness, a popular or genre writer like King has been hurt by, well, a certain lack of seriousness. His books make tons of money, so why try to make them great? And yet I wish that someone had asked King to take another go at his initially remarkable Bag of Bones, for instance, to request of him a radical new edit, and, perhaps, make more than just the novel’s first half unforgettable.

Both sides of our literary culture, then, are damaged by its self-divisions. The “divorce” between literary and popular work has reduced everyone.


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Joshua Rothman


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  • I’ve wondered why literary writing and imagination sometimes seem mutually exclusive. Although I’m primarily a literary writer myself, I get bored with story after story in lit journals about dysfunctional relationships. Is this all we’re about? I much prefer writers who can marry their ability to investigate the human condition with more imaginative concepts and moral questions offered by the likes of Saramago, Calvino and Borges. Even King occasionally gives us new possibilities to consider. They’re far more thought-provoking to me than the “finding oneself” stories that dominate lit today.

  • cody stewart says:

    What were Stephen Kings strengths

  • The only value that literature of any sort has is that which separates it from it other human endeavors, and this happens to be character. If you want ethics or morality, read philosophy, but to ignore the single strength of fiction (character) for those things that are accidental in a story is silly. “Theme” and “meaning” can be just as easily derived from a story as from history or whatever. Most writers don’t even give a crap about “theme” or “meaning” when they write.

    It just may be that James Joyce was an ass with a pen and not a god.

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