Monday, January 1, 2007

Thinking about Stephen King

There's been a lot of attention paid, lately, to Stephen King, what with the completion of his Dark Tower series, his 2003 “Distinguished Contribution” award from the National Book Foundation, and the recent publication of a new, quasi-literary book. A lot of people with serious establishment cred have been piping up to say how much King has influenced them, and on balance I think this is a good thing. I like Stephen King, and at times I've really, really liked him. And like a lot of people my age (men especially), I must indeed cite him as an influence.

But there's something a little irksome about this latest spate of attention. The world of capital-L Literature had used to ignore him entirely, which wasn't right; and now it seems to be lauding him as an underappreciated literary master, and that isn't right either. King is an often extremely entertaining, sometimes very smart, and always deeply flawed writer, and I think most thinking people who have read him have come to this conclusion pretty quickly. You can eat his stuff up and have a fine time doing it, but you can't help but notice his class paranoia, his tendency to illuminate every metaphor in neon to make sure you got it, his repetitiveness, his rib-elbowing in-jokes, his embarrassingly self-conscious literary references. You can't help but wish he'd written half as many books and taken twice as long to write them.

But there is a lot to like. I reviewed Dreamcatcher (verdict: pretty good) a few years ago in the now-defunct quarterly Bookpress, and said this:

King has good ideas. He can’t always distinguish them from his bad ideas, and his is not prose you’ll want to return to again and again, but there is something to him that is hard to ignore. He has access to, and control of, a powerful iconography that really does get at the heart of America’s fear and shame. He’s our sin-eater, the guy who shoulders the burden of our nastiest thoughts, who poisons the wellspring of our vanity, and for this service we have made him one of the wealthiest people in the state of Maine. And more power to him.

When you get down to it, King is a very likeable guy on the page, and he's even more likeable in an interview he gave recently to Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and Nathaniel Rich of The Paris Review (issue 178, Fall 2006): another example of this new wave of establishment attention and respect. And there is no doubt that King does deserve attention and respect. But the thing is, he is still flawed, and not as good as you suspect he could be, and I don't understand why hardly anyone ever seems to point this out. Thirty years of dismissing the guy followed by a new era of lauding him as a genius is silly and, more to the point, inaccurate.

The best thing you could say about Stephen King—and it is excellent praise indeed—is that he is absolutely distinctive and always has been. The “Richard Bachman” ruse was ridiculous: the moment, in Thinner, when “Bachman” knowingly referred to a previous Stephen King novel was the moment anyone who'd read King before must have known conclusively that Bachman was him. Pretending to be someone else referring to Stephen King is the defining act of Stephen-Kinginess.

But even when he's not pretending, it only takes a paragraph to know it's him. The italics, the exclamation points, the one-sentence paragraphs, the smartass working-class heroes who happen to have read Ulysses—he's as distinctive as Alice Munro, or Philip Roth, or George Saunders, or Lydia Davis, even if he doesn't match their brilliance, or even bother trying to. And that's what we ought to have been pointing out all along.

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