Sunday, October 3, 2010

In Defense of Stephen King

When I did my review of Thinner, I had a few more things I wanted to say about King the writer, but did not feel like they fit in with the theme of the review. I still wanted to share them, however. Here they are, expanded a bit.

The idea that I've read nearly a dozen Stephen King books and that doesn't even cover a third of his total output is pretty amazing to me. Not so much the number of books--think of how many Danielle Steel has written--but the variety of those books is what impresses me. We have short story collections, non-fiction, how-to, horror, mystery, collaborations, series, exclusive e-books (anyone else remember The Plant?), and even books released a chapter or two at a time.

King is not afraid to experiment with his writing. Sometimes it works extremely well and other times it falls flat on its face. But instead of simply writing the same book over and over again, King uses different formats, points of view, and other ways to keep his stories varied.

Are there some similarities? Certainly. I was a bit unsure about Cell, because it reminded me a lot of the Stand in some ways (one of those King productions I've only seen in movie form, to be honest). Most of King's books are set in New England, so the supporting characters and settings are often familiar. He's also the King of product placement, for which many often criticize him. (King's argument, if I remember correctly, is that people are less likely to be thrown out of a narrative if you use the real thing. I think that's sound logic.)

However, I don't think any writer is immune to repeating themselves here and there if they have a long literary career. I'm not even talking about people who write formula books, where the audience wants the repetition. (I like Tony Hillerman a lot, and part of that is when Chee and Leaphorn are in character, not out of it.) I'm looking more here at those that are considered literary writers, such as Margaret Atwood or Joyce Carol Oates, because that's where I think King belongs.

It's my contention that King's writing, while pulpy, often crude, and filled with vile people doing vile things, also has a depth that stays with you after you finish the book. Look at the concept of justice explored in Thinner. Yes, there are supernatural elements but scratch beneath the surface and you have questions that don't get an easy answer. Or take a look at Different Seasons, which features a man determined not to let his situation kill his spirit, the wonders of discovery in childhood, the nature of absolute evil, and, okay, that last story isn't as good as the other three but you get the idea.

We also see the nature of good and evil as a recurring theme, and how situations can corrupt even the best of us. If you stripped out the demons and resurrections and things from several of King's books, I have a feeling the literary critics would praise him to the heights of the canon. To me, the fact that King can make me think as a reader while terrifying/entertaining me at the same time makes his work even better than one that only contains the moral quandaries. Why is it such a crime that King gives us characters that talk and feel like real people who swear and fight and drink Coke? Is it just because they also have to deal with evils that have their roots in classical mythology of all cultures? We don't think less of "Homer" for adding in Greek Gods to his tale of humanity's foibles, so why do that to King?

I call this a defense of Stephen King, as though he needs it. The man is obviously extremely popular, has quite a few books left in his brain, will almost certainly get more movie deals, and is not exactly hurting for money. Whether or not he's appreciated by the New York Times Book Review set is secondary to the fact that he has millions of fans, including my wife and me. Yet I admit it bothers me that more people dismiss King as being "a hack" or a "writer for the masses" (as though that last one is a bad thing) while praising Charles "I got paid by the word and it shows" Dickens as being a pillar of quality writing.

Take a look at the Pickwick Papers sometime and try that one again, huh?

That's why I feel like I need to defend Stephen King and through him, the idea of popular literature in general. King is popular, true, but he's also a great writer. As his work ages, I think people are coming around to this idea. I often say that in 100 years, we'll be teaching King in schools, and they'll look back on all those articles and laugh as they describe him as a classic writer of the late 20th Century.

Some of us knew that all along.


  1. Found you via the hop. I love your defense of King. If the story is good, than why is it a bad thing if he's a writer for the masses. I understand the worry that a book with mass appeal has to be watered down or else it will alienate too much of the audience, but it's never felt like King has been a victim of that. I think it's too bad he is so often overlooked in literary circles because he does have something to deliver more than just a cheap scare. His short story 1408 is my favorite short story of any genre and I can re-read Misery over and over again.

  2. You know, many of my fellow music majors say the same thing about popular music today vs modern art music. Since everything we learn about now was the popular music of the time (Mozart was writing the next blockbuster you know), doesn't it make sense to think that 200 years from now they'll be studying Led Zeppelin and Micheal Jackson? Sometimes I feel like both literature and music people get too uptight and pretentious and forget what the real purpose of these things are: to communicate ideas and feelings.