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 two novels by Dashiell Hammett. This was a good two decades before it became hip to include genre writers in the American Lit syllabus.) I also read the occasional “international thriller” — John Le Carre, anyway — and I dabbled in science fiction, if Stanislaw Lem and Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood can be counted as science fiction writers. From all genre fiction (or literary fiction that happened to fall into a genre), I required some combination of wit and verbal ingenuity and emotional complexity and a more than perfunctory evocation of place (or period or social milieu) — more, in short, than the ability to construct a plot and make a story “move.” To make me care about “what happens next,” you first have to get me to care about what is happening now, on the page I’m reading.
One reason that I may have turned away from King’s fiction is that the genres (horror and fantasy) he worked in didn’t appeal to me. At an early age, I developed a fairly deep fear of scary stories and movies — this was no doubt partly the result of my mother taking me to see Psycho when I was nine; I still don’t plan on watching the four-fifths of that movie that I didn’t see when my mother and I and my friend Robin (who probably wanted to stay) walked out of the Uptown Theater in Louisville in 1960 — and I was, from an even earlier age, more interested in dog stories and the biographies of sports stars and Civil War generals than I was in the giants and trolls of fantastic fiction. When I read comic books, they were more likely to be the ones about Archie and Veronica than those about the gifted caped-and-body-stockinged figures that boys with bristly imaginations were supposed to gobble up.
But this aversion to horror fiction wasn’t the only thing that kept me from King’s work. No, for I’d informally decided sometime around my fiftieth birthday that ninety-nine percent of my fiction reading (and I was at a point in my life where I was calculating how many books I was going to be able to read before I came down with dementia or died) would be devoted to certifiably literary fiction (by both the dead and the living, and including dead and living writers of certifiably literary genre novels) and books by friends and acquaintances. I would keep my raffine literary nose out of books of pulp.
And, anyway, Stephen King didn’t need me to buy his books or even to read them, as did, perhaps, some of my scuffling writer friends. He was doing fine, turning out a book a year up there in Maine, hauling the proceeds to the bank in steamer trunks.
Around the turn of the century, I became aware of the fact that King had complained — or was it his publicists and friends who had complained on his behalf? — that he got little respect in the literary world, the world where ninety-eight percent of fiction writers don’t come close to making (if averaged annually, over the course of a thirty or forty year career) a poverty-level living from their work but where prizes and the occasional stipend are handed out. Just because King wrote genre fiction, the argument went, didn’t mean that his novels and stories didn’t have literary merit. Look at the horror stories of Edgar Allan Poe, it was said. Poe was an American classic, and so, his new literary friends seemed to suggest, was King. In 2000, the New York Times Magazine published a long, admiring article about King in which the reporter, Stephen J. Dubner, who would later write (with Steven Levitt) the best-selling Freakonomics, made a pitch for King’s literary merit. (Cynthia Ozick, a tough critic who has written some brilliant fiction, was quoted somewhat in support of Dubner’s opinion, though she hedged her praise with comments about what King’s fiction wasn’t.) In 2003, the National Book Foundation gave King its annual medal for distinguished contribution to American letters. Previous recipients of the medal included John Updike, Philip Roth, and Toni Morrison.
This promotional campaign, if that’s what it was, only hardened me further against reading King — and this despite the fact that King, or so I heard, was a nice guy, funny, liberal-minded, generous to other writers, a giver to good causes. The New Yorker, a King booster, published seven of his stories between 1994 and 2009, but I didn’t read any of them. I stuck to my snobbery.
And then one day King came up in the course of a discussion my wife and I had about my own writing — which she found to be a little dark and not really, if I understood her, something she wished to curl up with at night. I agreed that it was a little dark, and I also said that I probably (and probably wrongly) didn’t give enough credence to the idea that people (or my characters) could change or become better. We talked about why people read the fiction they read. My wife, who works in the medical field, made the perfectly valid point that not everybody reads fiction for the reasons I read it. (Among the things I hope for when I open a book of fiction is that each sentence I read will be right and true and beautiful, that the particular music of those sentences will bring me a pleasure I wouldn’t be able to find the exact equivalent of in another writer, that I will be continually surprised by what a particular writer reveals about particular human beings and the world they inhabit. A great book of fiction will lead me toward some fresh understanding of humanity, and toward joy.) My wife felt it was wrong to stand in judgment of people who read fiction in order to escape from life, and I said she was right: I didn’t feel morally superior because I read John Cheever or David Foster Wallace or William Styron or Zadie Smith or Mary Lee Settle instead of Stephen King.
I did feel, however, that I demanded something different (something more?) from a novel than I guessed most of the readers of Stephen King did. (Not that this made me morally superior, just more demanding, a high-maintenance reader.) Though of course I’d never read a King novel (or story), so maybe I was wrong.
That night in bed, I read a novel called Birds of Paradise (2011), by a friend named Diana Abu-Jaber. Set in south Florida just prior to the Great Recession, the novel’s prose is rich and lush, its characters are complicated in the way all humans are, and its story (about a teenaged girl who has abandoned her family for the wild side) is propulsive. Was it possible that Stephen King was as good as Diana Abu-Jaber, a writer hardly known beyond the ghetto that American literary fiction seems to have become?
I slept fitfully that night, dreamed a recurrent dream about a car repair shop whose employees were straight out of some noir pulp novel and to whom I seemed to be forever indebted, due to bad driving habits or moral failings. And then one weirdly warm January day in Wisconsin, I found myself in the King section of a bookstore, where a good twenty-five of his fifty or so books were on display. I picked the one that I thought my New York editor friend had recommended twenty-five years ago, the one about the demonic car.
I promised myself that I would read Christine — that’s the unlikely name of the beaten-up 1958 Plymouth that a pimply, nerdy, bullied kid named Arnie buys — with an open mind, not failing to consider King’s intentions, not blaming him for not attempting (if this turned out to be the case) what I might wish he had attempted. The worst book reviewers, as John Updike noted, often blame writers for failing to write the novels that the reviewers believe the writers should have attempted rather than the ones that actually lie between the covers.
After reading the first sixty-five pages of Christine, I thought that if King had intended to write a literary novel, he was failing. The two main characters, Arnie and his good-hearted pal the narrator, were blandly predictable; the minor characters all seemed to be cut from the same generic cloth (one side labeled “Nice Person,” the other labeled “Creep/Meanie”); each high-pitched melodramatic scene resembled the previous high-pitched melodramatic scene in tone and structure; the observations about life in a western Pennsylvania town in the late seventies were unremarkable (as compared to, say, the meticulously observed, lovingly detailed eastern Pennsylvania suburban landscape in Updike’s Rabbit novels); and the prose was consistently dull (the narrator’s attempts at snappy cleverness or humor rarely succeeding). Most surprisingly, the book moved at a slug’s pace. At the very least, I thought, a genre writer as good as King would keep the scenery flying by the window. But he lingered over scenes, drew them out way past where there was anything further to reveal, as if (perhaps: I couldn’t be entirely sure) King believed he was writing something classier than a pulp novel.
I read another fifty pages. The story gathered a little momentum, while at the same time the cheesiness increased. I thought this might be a good sign: perhaps King was no longer going to pretend that he was writing anything other than a horror novel that had a “story” to animate it.
Why, I wondered, had my editor friend fallen for this not very good novel? Or — whoops — had it been some other King novel that he’d recommended? I wrote to him and asked if I’d remembered the wrong book. He said he hadn’t ever read Christine, though he had seen the movie, and that the only King book he’d read (besides one submitted to him in manuscript) was Pet Sematary, (also published in 1983, a mere seven months after Christine), which someone had given to him when he was in the hospital in 1985 recovering from knee surgery. He recalled being “excited” by Pet Sematary, and also said that the King manuscript he’d seen was “pretty good."
In an introduction to the 2001 paperback edition of Pet Sematary, King says that it is “the most frightening book I’ve ever written” and that when he reread the book (six weeks after writing it), he “found the result so startling and so gruesome that [he] put the book in a drawer, thinking it would never be published.” Of course, by then (the early eighties), King was among the most successful writers of commercial fiction in America, and the notion that no publisher would touch what King himself clearly had a high regard for was absurd.
If the introduction suffers from the self-regard of a writer pondering his greatest hits, the novel itself is a step up from Christine. Which is to say that while there is little that is distinctive about King’s writing — and while the exposition (often in the form of long, unlikely passages of dialogue) is clunky, and the characters are thin, sentimental figures who exist to be buffeted about in the storm of plot, and the so-called build-up of tension is more tedious than scary — this novel is more cleanly written than Christine. It is competently made, in a way that is workmanlike, if hardly fresh or exciting. And perhaps if you are lying on a hospital bed without anything to read, a little dizzy from pain meds, and if a friend brings you this book to pass the time with and if you are able to get past the first hundred pages (the pacing is, once again, off), you might have the kind of reading experience my editor friend had.
Serious, sensible critics sometimes come to the defense of schlocky, splashily violent blockbuster sorts of novels (and films) — the kind of “entertainment” that, as the film critic Pauline Kael put it, has “plenty of plot but no meanings” — on the theory that we all (even intellectuals who make their living writing criticism) need an escape from life (or from thinking). Much slack is cut for the somewhat better samples of schlock. (“If the story moves,” Arthur Krystal says in a recent New Yorker piece about genre fiction, we’ll forgive everything else that may be weak or bad.) It will even be said (if not by critics, then by the money behind the schlock) that some second-rate piece of writing (or moviemaking) has more “life” in it than any number of “ambitious” high-modernist books of fiction. This is absurd — as if “life” consisted of production values or hokey premises or unearned, happy endings — but for those of us who believe that we have developed antibodies to schlock, it is useful to remember that we may sometimes err on the other side, praising certain pieces of high-modernist writing that are actually boring. I remember recommending to others, thirty-five years ago, the early stories of Ann Beattie (published in the mid-seventies mostly by The New Yorker). They seemed, at least to a young wannabe writer, so smart and insightful, so tuned-in to the alienation of young people during that dope-smoking era, but when I reread them this winter, I had to wonder what I’d been thinking (or smoking). They were flat and drab. (Beattie’s later stories are much stronger; she got better.) We make mistakes, and we change, too, as readers, over time.
I thought I’d try another King novel, a later one, to see if his writing had changed over the years. I was avoiding, I admit, what was then King’s very latest, 11/22/63, in part because it is so long (more than 800 pages) and despite the praise it had received in, for instance, the New York Times Book Review (the editors decided it was one of the five best books of fiction of 2011) and The New Yorker (“a deeply felt and often well-realized work, which extends King’s dominion over fantasy to the terrain of the historical record,” Thomas Mallon wrote).
So I went to the library and took out The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (1999), which ran to a mere 220 pages. I liked the title — I am a baseball fan — though I wondered how many readers (diehard Red Sox fans aside) picking up the book in 2012 would recognize the name Tom Gordon (a.k.a. Flash Gordon, a relief pitcher who thrived in the nineties).
I wish I could report that by 1999 King’s fiction justified the claims that some of the literati were making for it. But The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon is boring. (Dubner, in the New York Times Magazine, called it “beguiling.”) The writing is at times so weak — so pat, so lazy — that I no longer imagined that King was attempting anything other than getting his story from Point A to Point B, even if he was doing that none too quickly. At times, the novel read like not very good Y.A. fiction. I could imagine that a young reader might conceivably find the story — a nine-year-old girl lost in the Maine woods — compelling, but the pacing was, yet again, off. King’s woods were generic, and the little girl’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations, while sometimes plausible, lacked authenticity and singularity.
What is it about King’s writing that appeals to so many people? Clearly, King’s readers — many of whom seem to get hooked on him when they are adolescents — don’t care that the sentences he writes or the scenes he constructs are dull. There must be something in the narrative arc, or in the nature of King’s characters, that these readers can’t resist. My sense is that 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 (the latter would, of course, include the aggrieved adolescent or adult), a reader who would rather not consider the proposition that we are all, each of us, nice good people awash in problems and entirely capable of evil. King coddles his readers, all nice, good, ordinary, likeable people (just like the heroes of his books), though this doesn’t completely explain why these readers are so tolerant of the bloat in these novels, why they will let King go on for a couple hundred pages about some matter that has no vital connection to the subject of the book.
This is what happens in 11/22/63, which I finally gave in to, after much hand-wringing about the time lost to the books piled on my night table. After all, the novel had received the highest praise from some of the more influential literary organs in America. Wasn’t it possible that the literary press had gotten it right this time?
It was possible, but they got it wrong.
The hero of 11/22/63 is a high school English teacher named Jake Epping. (When it comes to writing, Jake, one of King’s regular-Joe white knights, prefers a supposedly heartfelt but clumsily written story by a janitor getting a GED degree — the story makes Jake cry and he gives it an A-plus — to the “boring” and “pursey-mouthed” essays by his honors students. King doesn’t show us a sample of the latter, but when he does finally get around to sharing a substantial piece of the janitor’s story, you can’t help but wonder about Jake’s (and King’s) judgment. King’s real purpose here seems to be to suggest that people like him write with a lot of feeling, while so-called literary people don’t, and that it is the “what,” rather than the “how,” that matters in writing. Jake, who seems to have no serious flaws other than to have once been married to an alcoholic (later described as a “sweet” person underneath it all), is persuaded by the proprietor of a diner to walk through the diner’s pantry into the past — the diner owner, Al, who is dying of cancer, has, for whatever reason, access to a time-travel tunnel. Al wants Jake to correct the past, and specifically to intervene in the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy. Jake, humbly demurring, says, “Al. . . man . . . I’m just a little guy.”
King is not one for starting a novel in medias res. It takes his hero 275 pages to get to Dallas and over 500 pages to get into 1963. Much of the first third of the novel involves Jake trying to alter a bit of local Maine history in 1958, in particular, the past of that high school janitor, whose family was victimized by an evil sledgehammer-wielding father and who, fifty-three years later, endures the taunts of bullying kids. Jake regards this initial foray into the past as a warm-up, or “test case,” before tackling Lee Harvey Oswald and a watershed moment in history.
The first 300 pages are competently written — workmanlike — but they are plodding, too. The characters are tinny and flat, and the period detail is slathered thickly on, as if to hide some vacancy. King has a tendency to explain what has been implied or shown, and the tediousness of much of his narrative (certain “action” scenes aside) seems to be partly the result of his thinking that every single moment of his hero’s day (trips to the bathroom, trips to the fridge, trips out the apartment door, comments made to a bus driver, comments made to a cat) are necessary or even interesting. (Is this hubris, or did King, now over fifty books into a career, miss the part in the manual about less sometimes being more?) There are moments, to be fair, when King shows us some piece of Maine landscape or townscape, circa 1958, that has the ring of truth in it, even moments (though they are few and far between) when a sentence has a little pop. But the chief problem with this 300 page prelude is that it has no necessary or organic connection with the next five hundred pages. Jake’s “test case” could be read as King’s first (and only?) draft, in which the author gets the hang of time travel and then comes to believe that those of us who had been expecting a novel about the Kennedy assassination will put up with this trial run (which the narrator will, during his Dallas years, “novelize.” A piece of it is read and praised by a crusty Dallas librarian, who nonetheless advises Jake to put the novel aside and stick to doing all those “amazing and wonderful” things he does for frightened student thespians and so many other nerdy folks). There’s no good reason that King couldn’t have cut a third of this novel, or at least squeezed the chapters about 1958 down to a fifth of their length.
Why, I wondered again, do some people in the literary business regard this extremely successful writer of genre fiction as a first-rate writer of literary fiction, a “major” contributor to American literary culture? How is it possible that a novel as bloated and mediocre as 11/22/63 is can be deemed by the New York Times Book Review as one of the five best books of fiction of the year? Do we fear being labeled “elitist” or “liberal” if we don’t reward commercial success in other ways (as if an enormous advance and a river of royalties are not reward enough)? Or do we believe that commercial success on the King scale signifies, almost by definition, quality, the way a 20,000 square-foot house supposedly signifies to passersby that the owners must be important?
But it’s not all about “market” economics, is it? The fact that King is both apparently a regular guy and a liberal must have made it easier for the literary establishment to give him a seat up there on the podium. It’s hard to imagine that an avowedly right-wing writer of thrillers that sell in the millions would get similar treatment, though the sales numbers probably wouldn’t hurt. How often, to change the subject slightly, do you hear voters say they voted for someone because he seemed like the sort of person you could have a beer with? (You could have a beer with King probably, and he’d probably be good company, but King would be drinking something nonalcoholic; he gave up alcohol some years ago.) That’s a pretty dumb reason for voting for someone (almost as dumb as voting for someone because, like George W. Bush, he no longer drinks), but, to get back to the praise that has been showered on King, the literary business is not all that different from any other business in which politics or cronyism sometimes plays a role.
In his long New Yorker article about genre fiction, Arthur Krystal devotes a paragraph to King’s entry into the lit world (after “having mastered the horror genre”) and manages to make Harold Bloom’s denunciation of the National Book Foundation’s 2003 award to King look ill-tempered, cranky, and elitist. “In short, Bloom was annoyed that King had become a dude of literature.” Krystal seems to regard King as a good enough “guilty pleasure,” though he cites nothing specific about King’s writing (other than the fact that a literary magazine and The New Yorker have given him space) that might persuade a reader that the praise of his work by the literary establishment is in any way justified.
By bestowing rewards on writing that is not all that good, has not the literary establishment lowered standards and pushed even further to the margins writing that is actually good and beautiful? If you ask me whether it is worth your while to read Stephen King instead of (or even in addition to) scores of other better contemporary writers you may have never read (and should hurry up and read before you die), I would say no, unless you are maybe fifteen and have made it clear to your teachers and everybody else that you aren’t going to touch that literary “David Copperfield kind of crap” with a ten-foot pole.
My son, George, who is now twenty-four, read a little King in high school, but he hasn’t gone back to him since then. After you’ve read Roberto Bolaño and Denis Johnson and David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon, as my son has, why would you return to Stephen King? King may be an adequate enough escape from life, if that’s all you require from a book of fiction, but his work (or what I’ve read of it) is a far cry from literature, which, at its best, is, sentence by sentence, a revelation about life.