Sunday, September 30, 2007

Stephen King, Get Over It Already

Oh, for Pete's sake.

Many of you have probably read this morning's editorial in the Times Book Review by Stephen King. It's pretty much a ripoff of his own introduction to the new Best American Short Stories, and is about his favorite topic: how Ivy League intellectual snobs have ruined literature.

You'd think that, in the wake of his complete acceptance by the "literary establishment" that he for so long was convinced disdained him, King would no longer feel it necessary to write pretentious little screeds like this; but if you think that, you don't know King. This is the most outrageously class-obsessed writer in the world, the guy who trots out his working class cred at every available opportunity, and there was no way something like winning the actual admiration of powerful people would put a stop to it.

The essay in question is structured as an imaginary big-box store visit, where King discovers that the literary magazines are expensive, and you have to bend over to read them. He uses these observations to assert that the audience for serious fiction has dwindled. And then he says that this audience

happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and the New Yorker, of course...) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there. And this kind of reading isn't real reading, the kind where you just can't wait to find out what happens next... It's more like copping-a-feel reading. There's something yucky about it.

Got that? If you're a young writer, and you're reading that New Yorker story, and think you find it entertaining, sorry, you're mistaken. Actually, you're a pervert. And a calculating snob/loser/poseur. And if you claim that you are able to enjoy a story that operates by means other than event-driven narrative linearity, you are lying.

What a bunch of fucking bullshit. King is certainly right about the limited audience for literary fiction. He's right that most fiction sucks, too. But most fiction has always sucked. You can't name the shitty writers of 1923, not because they didn't exist, but because they didn't last. Bad fiction is usually bad in ways that reveal the vanities of its era, and I won't argue that the vanities of this era don't indeed include intellectual pretension, MFA-fueled obfuscatory mediocrity, and emotional detachment.

But dude: get over it. King seems to need, very badly, to believe that everyone in the world is a fake but him. One story in the new B.A.S.S. anthology so perfectly encapsulates the King paranoia that he might have written it himself. In it, a good ol' honest-to-god salt-of-the-earth auto parts salesman tells the story of his brother, a famous "intellectual" writer who mistreats women, humiliates his family, looks down on everyone, and dies miserable. It's a piece of such breathtaking reverse snobbery, classist wish fulfillment, and emotional fakery that I could barely believe my eyes. Like King's essay today, it brims, embarrassingly, with bitterness and jealousy.

I've read pretty much everything King has written, and like a lot of literary writers of my generation, I count him as an influence, in spite of his flaws. But wow, there is no pleasing the guy. The best-selling, wealthiest, most prolific, most loved writer of his generation, enjoyed by readers from all socioeconomic strata and education levels, and he still thinks the phonies are out to get him.

Well, fuck you, man. We literary whipper-snappers are not reading magazines to advance our careers, we're reading them because we like them. Just like you pretend to. You begged and begged to be admitted into the elite, highly selective, and completely imaginary company of the literati, and finally they gave in. And as soon as you strolled through the nonexistent door into their illusory super special secret smart people's club you told 'em they were heartless lame-o's. "I certainly don't want some fraidy-cat's writing school imitation of Faulkner, or some stream-of-consciousness about what Bob Dylan once called 'the true meaning of a pear'."

Guess what, Steve--neither do the rest of us. And enough quoting of Dylan and Springsteen, as part of your endless effort to prove once and for all how very down to earth and populist you are. If there's a hell for snobs, you will reside there for eternity, reading over and over the collected works of Barthes, Derrida, and Baudrillard.

And I'm still going to read your next book.


Daniel said...

Haha. Well said. I'm one of Ed's old students from New Orleans, and I've followed the blog off and on for a little while.
It's interesting to me that King bashes writing schools and everything but the sort of go it alone, lone-ranger mentality that he imagines his favorite writers had (you're telling me Faulkner wouldn't have jumped at the chance of having the kind of writing time an MFA gives you? I mean he wrote As I Lay Dying working in a damn power plant at night) even after having contributed to the industry with a book like On Writing--a book which, I confess, was pretty important to me in high school.
I'm curious to know what you think of the Best American series as a whole.

jrlennon said...

I like the series a lot, and have all of the ones from the past 25 years. Some years aren't so hot, in my view, but you can't ask for perfection. 1986 and 1987 were the best ever.

On Writing is a wonderful book for a kid to read who wants to get inspired to write. But the whole idea of writing schools as culprits in the ruination of writing is just dumb. At worst, they raise the general level of mediocrity. At best, they help a talented writer to really dig in and concentrate on her work for two years. They're not for everybody, but for some people they can be great. They can help you figure out who you are.

Anything that nurtures talent is good. Anything that makes people more critical of themselves and encourages dedication to craft is good. If you come out of an MFA program writing pretentious gobbledygook, there's nobody to blame but yourself. And if you come out writing great fiction, you're to blame for that, too. School is a tool. You can use it to build a castle, or you can use it to whack yourself on the thumb.

ed said...

Here here!

ed said...

How's Valencia, Daniel?

Cats beat Texas 41-21.

By the way.

John, we've talked about Stephen King a lot, and how powerful The Stand is, or can be, if you want it to be. I looked at it again this week after catching half an hour of the tv miniseries from 1993 rebroadcast on the lower frequencies of cable. What did I like about it? I can't find whatever I had found there now.

What I am digging is Phantasmagoria, by Maria Warner, a critical work which traces the ways the "spirit" has been represented in popular culture over time...wax death masks, paintings of clouds, zombie movies, etc. I've been comparing it favorably in my mind to Stephen King's Danse Macabre, remember that book?, which tried to apply some sort of intelligence to the subject, and as I remember, foundered.

Fine stuff though, Madam Tussuad combing through the graveyards of The Terror looking for faces to imprint.

jrlennon said...

This book I will check out, thank you, sir.

The Stand: I must confess I still really like the first half. (Of the original edition, I mean, before he stuck the extra stuff back in.) But when the wise old down home lady who is actually God shows up, the book pretty much heads south real quick.

moonlight ambulette said...

Oh my god, you're awesome.

It's so annoying to hear an established writer rag on the little guys. Like, sorry, but how do you think writers who aren't you make money, dude? I think MFA programs are genius, if for no other reason than that they've created some sort of cottage industry in which writers can work. NOT that I've read the essay but now I will surely have to.

I love the sheer energy of this rant. Seriously, it makes me feel envigorated, like I've just run a mile.

the individual voice said...

I was hoping someone would rant on this essay and I'm so glad it was you, J.R., having read all of King's works, liking them, and still seeing him as a blustering snob. Well done!

jrlennon said...

Thanks. It is a pleasure typing cuss words...

Kevin said...

It's strange that he blames, in part, MFA programs for the deterioration of the short story, when many have credited MFA programs with keeping the form alive. They provide forums (most journals are attached to MFA programs), and if it weren't for the popularity of workshops over the past fifty years, you probably wouldn't have thousands of young aspiring writers focusing exclusively on short stories.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who is interested in knowing what Uncle Stevie's albums of 2007 are should pick up the Dec. 7 issue of Entertainment Weekly. I know I've been waiting.

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Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your blog, Mailman Lennon, initially, and couldn't wait to look up King's essay, and join in the fun of bashing Goliath. However, now that I've read "What Ails the Short Story", I have switched my allegiance and agree with him (and no, I was wrong, he is still David, no matter how rich he is, and the Ivy League MFA factories will always be the Goliaths), and I find your blog the rant of a threatened teacher of MFA wannabees. Several years ago, I started a graduate program in art, and walked away from the intellectually suffocating influences that resided there to "wedge me into a formula" like the rest of them. I applaud King for having the balls to stand up and call the bluff, regardless of the (phony) praise they've bestowed upon him. By the way, I suffered through your recent book Castle, a book one quarter the size of Duma Key, which I devoured in a week, and found your book just emotionally inert,(okay, except for that one scene when the professor grabs the boy and pretends like he's going to kill him, just to get a response from his mother. That was good writing, and I went back and reread it several times.)

Read King's original essay: