IN THE MID-EIGHTIES, when I was living in New York, a friend, an editor at a major publishing house, told me that I should read Stephen King. This friend, a guy who loved Pynchon and Nabokov and Gass (and who, as an employee of a conglomerate-owned publishing house, knew that, as a practical matter, in order to sell his bosses on the high-modernist novels he so admired, he also had to publish surefire moneymakers), said that King was good. As I recall, my friend didn’t qualify the “good” by saying that King was “really pretty good for a genre writer” or “good enough if you happen to be on a desert island with nothing else to read.” (One of my friend’s many charms is the degree of his enthusiasms, a quality surely appreciated by the first-rate writers he has edited over the years.) It’s possible that we’d both had too much bad beer to drink when the subject of King came up, and that my friend’s praise of a certain King novel — the one about a haunted Plymouth Fury? — was more nuanced than I was capable of grasping at that moment.
But my friend didn’t persuade me to drop whatever I was reading and head for the book rack down at the A&P (there actually was an A&P in my Westchester neighborhood, circa 1985) and spend $3.95 for a novel about a demonic beater. I didn’t read any of King’s fiction then or over the next twenty-five years. I did read — to make a clean breast of it — a King piece about Little League baseball that The New Yorker published in the early nineties. It annoyed me somewhat that The New Yorker, where I had once worked, had resorted to publishing celebrity millionaire writers, possibly in order to seem populist and with it, but the fact was that, at least based on this piece of nonfiction, King wrote pretty well, if no better than any number of nameless scribes who were also Little League dads.
So, why didn’t I read King’s fiction? Was I simply an elitist, anti-populist literary snob who felt he would be soiled by reading stuff that sold? I do have some snob in me — it’s my sense that a lot of the books read by practically nobody are often good, whereas a lot of the books read by millions are often crap — but the term doesn’t fully describe my resistance to King’s fiction.
During my college and graduate school years and then in my post-graduate working life, I’d read, in addition to much commercially successful literary fiction, a fair amount of genre fiction. I was mildly addicted to detective novels, though I was not the type to read them compulsively, filling a sitting room wicker basket with them, knocking off two or three Graftons or Parkers in the course of a rainy five-day stay on the coast of Maine. During a rainy five-day stay on the coast of Maine, I might read one Rendell or one P.D. James or one Leonard or one Sjowall & Wahloo. (Strangely enough, I’d developed my taste for crime fiction in college, when I took a course in twentieth century American literature that included...read more