READING DWIGHT ALLEN'S “My Stephen King Problem: A Snob’s Notes” was like wandering through that part of the mental institution where the inmates are wearing stethoscopes and calling themselves doctors. Smart readers, unite! Let us decry the naked Emperor called Stephen King, and restore our soiled integrity! Uh, okay. After that, can we all play Thundercats?
On a more serious note, I can understand Allen’s frustration. Literature no longer wields the same cultural currency it did fifty years ago. We’re not all talking about the latest Wharton, Updike, or Carver. The Pulitzer in fiction wasn’t even awarded this year (see Laura Miller’s explanation). As corporations bloat into obese, self-perpetuating monsters, our society has fractured into thousands of small, like-minded bubbles. We don’t consume art; we produce text messages. Everybody’s a star! Reality television has-beens, unite!
I think Allen blames King for what he represents: the blockbuster. Unlike most blockbuster authors (Patterson, Meyer), King commands esteem from the kinds of people who hand out awards. When most new writers can’t get a book published unless they have an agent in New York, and they can’t get an agent in New York unless their best friend is dating someone who once went to school with Nicole Aragi, that’s demoralizing. There’s only so much poop humor in Dreamcatcher that any starving artist can take.
Maybe society is to blame. You can earn an easy million on Wall Street, while your first published novel probably won’t pay a month’s Manhattan rent. But why attack Stephen King? Why not go after the majority, who don’t read at all? Then again, what’s with the picking? How does that help?
It’s a dead debate. Allen’s oppositions — workmanlike/artistic; literary/genre; educated/blue collar; New Yorker reader from Louisville/dumb fuck from Bangor — are contrived. They distract us from real issues by splitting groups that aren’t actually different, or at least not opposites. In other words, Margaret Atwood and George Orwell would have made a fantastic couple. Who knows, maybe Ronald Reagan and Hillary Clinton too.
And on to Stephen King, who deserves fairer treatment. It’s no secret that even the best of King’s novels could use an editor. Much of his fiction is long-winded and rife with sentimentality. As I’m reading him, I’m sometimes embarrassed for him. I mean, how about that ending to It where the hero saves his wife from catatonia by taking her on a magic bike ride? If you only saw the movie The Shining, you probably don’t know that Jack Torrance is prone to cheesy, dry-drunk weeping about the perfection of his only son Danny. King’s epic The Stand ends with God’s Hand coming down from heaven and setting off a nuclear weapon, killing all the bad guys. How silly, right? No wonder, as Allen says, “King appeals to the aggrieved adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adult, who believes that people can be divided into bad and good.”
Then why is King so popular? Is it, as Allen suggests, that we’re all just lemmings, following a forty-year trend? It’s not that craz...read more