Saturday, July 31, 2004

Book Bias

This post is being written in response to what one of my friends said to me about my previous post: "I can't believe you're like Oh this author is so great - then bring him up in the same entry as mentioning Stephen King. Do you know what that says? That says 'I'm a twit and I read crap.'

"And I know that's not true.

"Best not to mention SK if you wish to remain a reliable source of good books. Just between you and me."

Now, let's get one thing straight right off the bat: Is Stephen King an uber-great literary writer in my opinion? Not really. Is he one of the most important literary figures of the last thirty years? Absolutely. There's a reason he won last year's National Book Foundation medal for "Distinguished Contribution to American Letters." For those of you who don't know, this medal is given out by the same people who award the National Book Award every year. These people know their stuff as past winners such as Toni Morrison, Arthur Miller, and John Updike can attest. Sure, Stephen King never wrote any single novel on the level of some works by Morrison, Updike, Miller, or a few others, but his body of work is as a whole is of great merit.

His presenter, Walter Mosley, said it well:

Mr. King's novels are inhabited by people with everyday jobs and average bodies, people who have to try to find extraordinary strength when they've never been anything but ordinary. Stephen King once said that daily life is the frame that makes the picture. His commitment, as I see it, is to celebrate and empower the everyday man and woman as they buy aspirin and cope with cancer. He takes our daily lives and makes them into something heroic. He takes our world, validates our distrust of it and then helps us to see that there's a chance to transcend the muck. He tells us that even if we fail in our struggles, we are still worthy enough to pass on our energies in the survival of humanity.

Mr. King's phenomenal popularity is due to his almost instinctual understanding of the fears that form the psyche of America's working class. He knows fear. And not the fear of demonic forces alone but also of loneliness and poverty, of hunger and the unknown we have to breach in order to survive. We go with him to the Wal-Mart and to the mechanic who always charges $600 no matter why you went there. He shares with us the awesome reverence for life, that magical formula that not even the most arrogant scientist or cleric or critic would dare to define.

Tonight we honor Stephen King, our Everyman and our guide. Giving this award to him is also recognizing and celebrating the millions of readers who are transported, elated and given hope by his pedestrian heroes in a world where anything can and does happen.

For those whose sensibilities are too..."refined" for Mr. King, they either have not sufficiently read from his work, or they went into the reading with a predetermined opinion already in place which they had no intention of changing. Fact is, I admit to suffering from the same disease. I can honestly say that, if someone were to strongly recommend that I read a novel by Danielle Steele or Nora Roberts, I would laugh and freely poke holes in the novel as I went through as well. I have never read anything by them, but I have a preconceived notion that they are formula writers on no great significance from an artistic point of view. Hell, I may very well be wrong, though I don't want to risk trying them and being right—that would be more painful than being wrong. However, I'm not here to make an argument for them; they have yet to prove themselves to be capable of transcending their genres.

Stephen King, however, has transcended genre fiction. How many people view King's writing as genre and generally tasteless, yet applaud such surpassingly amazing films as The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile either not knowing the source of these stories or willfully ignoring the fact? Who can experience a story like those and say, "Well, there's more of that Stephen King horror crap." These movies are considered top-tier. Yes, they are well-made films. Yes, the acting is superb. However, none of that matters without the emotional, powerful, and gripping stories, written by King, from which these movies emanate. Yes, I realize I segued from literature to film, but it's to make this point: Stephen King is far more than a horror writer. He has transcended the niche in which he first started, much like Kurt Vonnegut had to do before him. However, some people seem intent on keeping his labels intact (whether from jealousy of his mass market success—see paragraph 2 in quote above for refutation—or from vain prejudgement) despite the proof that they can see with their own two eyes; he creates stories touching the human spirit and human transcendence on a level far superior to the credit he is given—even by some "experts."

If one wants to give King an honest-to-god try, then I recommend The Dead Zone, The Green Mile, or shorter works such as Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Body. After that, read whatever tickles you. Admittedly, a lot of his work does descend into camp and pure genre writing (see: Tommyknockers and Christine for examples), but there are a few other intellectually stimulating works scattered throughout. Ultimately, I would suggest tackling what I consider his two most complex, deep, and rewarding works: The Stand and The Dark Tower series. Seriously, this guy knows how to write.

The main criticism I have of King is that he has a tendency to write to his audience. It was his appeal to the masses that made him such a success, and occasionally what comes through in his writing is a sense of his not wanting to offend his fan base. He has a tendency to to play down his profound and meaningful passages and moments. It's as if he's afaid that if he really emphasizes what he wants to say, that he'll push away his more casual readers. Hence, it isn't very obvious when he's trying to accomplish something literary. The meaning is there, but he makes you dig for it. He'd rather you put out the effort than he risks off-putting any readers.

Now, I'm not going into any critical arguments in this post (I'll include him in an essay I'll be writing in a few weeks), but cut the man some slack, people. I wouldn't be surprised if, in fifty years, King is a sort of Wilkie Collins of the 20th century—a sort of lesser Dickens. Like Dickens and Collins, he's viewed as merely a successful popular writer in his own time, but Dickens and Collins only rose to the level of important literary figures (more like literary icon for Dickens) after their time. I think so will King. I can't honestly say I can see him being taught in school like Dickens, but hey, who knows? If Collins and Anthony Trollope can manage it, why not King? He may not be to Dickens' level, but he's better than the other two.


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