Every graduate-level literature class I took started the same way: “Tell us your name and the name of your favorite writer.” I always faced a dilemma—join in the choruses of Joyce, Pynchon, and Kerouac, or be honest.
Sometimes I’d stretch the truth and cite William Faulkner (“As I Lay Dying” is amazing), J.D. Salinger (“Nine Stories” was a pivotal book for me), or Raymond Carver (his short stories are phenomenal). This would be met with the obligatory murmurs of agreement, and we’d move on. When I told the truth, however—when I admitted that my favorite writer was Stephen King—I’d spend the rest of the semester trying to regain the credibility I’d lost with that statement.
Why? Because he wasn’t considered a “serious writer.”
Times haven’t changed much since I was in grad school. When King was given the U.S. National Book Foundation’s annual award for “distinguished contribution to American letters,” Yale University literary critic Harold Bloom summed up the honor thusly: “Another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life.” He then continued, “I’ve described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind. He is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis. Stephen King is beneath the notice of any serious reader who has experienced Proust, Joyce, Henry James, Faulkner and all the other masters of the novel.”
As my husband would say, “Horseshit.” I’ve experienced all of those writers, and none moves, excites, or inspires me more than Stephen King. In his novella, The Body (on which “Stand by Me,” my favorite childhood movie, was based), he writes in his opening paragraph:
“The most important things are the hardest to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them—words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.”
That was it—that’s what sucked me into the world of Stephen King, and there I’ve remained for nearly 30 years. Some of his catalog is stronger than others, but when you start one of his books, you always know you’re in good hands—that there’s a well-though-out plan (he doesn’t like the use of the word “plot”) and that you’ll be in the company of characters that are at once familiar and polarizing. At his best (“Different Seasons,” “Cujo” (which I argue is a naturalistic novel—move over Stephen Crane), “Lisey’s Story,” “The Stand”, and “On Writing”), he’s riveting. At his worst (“Rose Red,” “Dreamcatcher,” “The Tommyknockers”), he’s still pretty good
I mention “On Writing.” Back in 2000, King wrote a memoir on the craft or writing. It’s outstanding. If I were still teaching at Eastern Michigan University, and if I had the opportunity to teach a fiction course, this is the book I would assign. (Even if I were still teaching freshman composition, I’d pull pieces from this to share.) Next time, I’ll be back with my top writing tips from that book.
In the meantime, how do you feel about Stephen King? Do you have a favorite book? Are there other authors who have unfairly been diminished because of their popularity?
Word of the Week: Horseshit
Song of the Week: “Instant Karma,” by John Lennon