In Defense of Stephen King

A few months back, I had a really, really nice dinner.  It was at a wedding, but it wasn’t your typical overcooked, mass-produced and reheated affair.   The meal started with a plate of fresh seafood – so fresh, in fact, it hadn’t even been cooked.  As a lover of sushi, I was delighted.  There was squid, lobster, shrimp, and oysters served with fresh lemon and drawn butter.  The next course was a prawn ravioli, immaculately prepared and beautifully presented.  Next came a lobster tail grilled to perfection and served with fresh tart mango.  Apertifs, cigars, and a delicious wedding cake followed.  It was a meal memorable in every sense of the word – gorgeous, unique, delicious.

That night, on the way back to my hotel, after eating what was probably the finest food of my life, I couldn’t wait for the next day when I could go into Rome for a pizza.

And this leads into my discussion on Stephen King, my literary pizza.  He’s criticized quite a bit by the literary intelligentsia for his pedestrian writing.  Take, for example, Harold Bloom’s 2003 op-ed published in the Boston Globe.

 THE DECISION to give the National Book Foundation’s annual award for “distinguished contribution” to Stephen King is extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. I’ve described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind. He shares nothing with Edgar Allan Poe. What he is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.

Bloom goes on, not by providing any useful critique of King as a writer but by lamenting the fact that he’s successful and that he writes books people like to read.  An interesting analytical tack for such an esteemed literary critic, but that’s beside the point.  Snobs (including, but certainly not limited to, Harold Bloom) can’t seem to reconcile with the idea that a popular writer can also be a good writer.

If I was Harold Bloom, I could stop here, include some irrelevant references to how Charles Dickens was immensely popular as well as being a great writer, rephrase my original point, and call it a day.  But, I’m not the great literary critic, so I’m going to have to actually defend my argument.

There are many purposes to literature – it teaches, enlightens, elucidates. It can comfort and console. Often, it tests boundaries, shatters taboos, and offends.  And it does all of this by telling a story.  That is the fundamental purpose of expository literature.  If the story falters, it cannot achieve anything else.  Sure, the prose might be interesting or the words might be complicated.  But, without a good story, no one will care.  All the greats – Shakespeare, Dickens, Melville, thousands of others – have known this.

What does it take to tell a good story?  It’s simple – a plot and believable characters. Nothing else.  It doesn’t take a dictionary-size vocabulary or a revolutionary style.  It takes believable characters doing something.  The plot doesn’t even have to be all that interesting – Romeo and Juliet is nothing but two young fools who fall in love and die, happens all the time.  What makes it a classic is that the characters are so real to us, five hundred years and thousands of miles removed.

Now, is Stephen King our modern Shakespeare?  Of course he isn’t.  But no one really is.

Stephen King is, however, a serious writer who creates believable characters and writes them into wonderful stories.  Most memorable of King’s creations? At the top of my list, I’d put Lisey Landon from Lisey’s Story.  She’s a woman not only coping with the death of her husband, but with the unmooring of her own identity in the wake of this tragedy.  The plot of the story pretty much goes nowhere – it happens over the course of a single day and, apart from a visit to a relative’s house, happens mostly in flashback and in Lisey’s head.  But, it’s still one of King’s most affecting works because of the amazing character who drives it.

All of Kings books are populated by characters like Lisey.  There are some derivative and cardboard characters sprinkled in here and there, but for the most part, King excels at characterization.  Especially with bad guys – I’m thinking of the creepiness of the Trashcan Man in The Stand, the repulsiveness of Big Jim Rennie from Under the Dome, and the tragic awfulness of Rhea of the Coos in The Dark Tower IV – Wizard and Glass.  

These characters are the real stars of King’s writing, not the demonic dogs or the satanic clowns or the cell phone zombies.  They are plot devices which lead King’s characters into extraordinary situations where the author can chronicle the fall-out, good and bad.  The real terror of King’s writing is not of the supernatural sort (although It‘s Pennywise the Clown scared the sh%*t out of me).  Rather, it’s the terror that comes from watching ordinary people distort into hideous monsters when confronted with the unknown.  Under the Dome, while not King’s best work, demonstrated this quality incredibly well.  The horror of the book did not come from the Dome, which was vastly indifferent to the suffering of it’s captives.  The horror came from the people within and what they did to each other.

Stephen King has faults.  He doesn’t know how to wrap up a story and often stumbles in the final chapters.  He’s a prodigious user of adverbs and cliches and all the other worn out devices that our high school comp teachers tried to cure us of.  But, really, so what?  When I get shivers at the end of The Stand, am I going to remember the redundant adverb on page 487?  Of course not.  I’m going to remember the hundreds of fascinating characters and the epic story that I’ve just finished.

I’ve read books that outshine anything Stephen King has written and I cherish and love those books.  At the same time, when I’m finished, it’s King who I go back to, knowing that I’m in for a story with characters that I’m going to know and care about.

Stephen King is my literary pizza – sometimes good, sometimes wonderful, sometimes approaching gourmet status, but always satisfying.  I wouldn’t eat pizza every day, and I know that there is some better food out there. Those meals, however,  are few and far between.  While I wait (and look) for those meals, I know exactly where I can get a dish I will love.

(This post inspired by this week’s Literary Blog Hop at The Blue Bookcase.)

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24 comments

  1. i love king too..my beef with him now is that i think his editor is afraid of him…his books could be cut in half!!!!

    1. Yeah, I suppose. But I like the rambling bits, it makes the books last longer and, in my opinion, help build up some suspense. But, he can be a tad verbose at times. Thanks for coming by!

  2. As I’ve said before, I’m not a fan of his work , but still enjoyed your spirited defense of one of your favourite writers, we don’t eat nouvelle cuisine everyday, sometimes fish n chips is perfectly adequate.

    1. Thanks Parrish. He’s not for everyone and I have no beef with people who would just prefer not to read him. It’s people who would dismiss him out of hand as a hack that annoy me.

  3. Fantastic post! Your pizza analogy is wonderfully apt. I haven’t read any Stephen King since high school (thought I did enjoy Firestarter and Salem’s Lot, back in the day) but I’ve heard so many smart people praise his books that I know I’m missing out. Maybe I’ll pick up one for the beach this summer.

    1. Definitely do. If you’re looking for a recommendation, go with The Stand. This is probably King’s best overall novel. It’s a whopper, well over 1000 pages, but so good.

  4. I love this post, especially the line about how you’ll have to defend your argument because you aren’t a literary critic. King’s been on my mind since I’ve been reading Dreamcatcher and he’s certainly not on the same literary level as a Shakespeare, an Austen or whathaveyou, but he’s more than some hack writer. He’s a fantastic storyteller, and you’re right, the characters are the stars.

    1. Haha, I kind of enjoyed writing that line. I didn’t deal much with full-on literary critics in college, but the times I did made me want to wring someone’s neck. I think that King’s storytelling gift alone makes him a literary figure. Not a stylistic genius or a Shakespeare, but a serious writer nonetheless.

  5. Well said! I would defend Stephen king to the death, since, at his best, he’s pretty much better than 90% of the stuff I’ve ever read. Also, if you need to develop a debilitating fear of clowns or drains, then hes definitely your man!! The dark tower series is also utterly incredible, and I won’t hear a word said against it.
    Also, Poe? Not that great a writer IMHO. I nearly died when I had to read the narrative of arthur Gordon pym…

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I’m in full agreement…except for the Poe bit. I kind of like him. “The Masque of the Red Death” is one of the creepiest, most atmospheric stories I’ve read.

  6. Stephen King is also my literary pizza – that is a great metaphor! I agree with your Under the Dome assessment: It wasn’t good – mostly because it exemplified all of King’s flaws: letting characters run the story, not having an ending in mind, cliches. I always have trouble with the comparison that writers like Dickens and Tolstoy were the Stephen Kings of their day – and therefore people in 2113 will be reading King. Maybe, but I don’t see it – and I definitely don’t see future literary gurus reading other popular fiction of our day, like James Patterson, Twilight, Vince Flynn, John Grisham, etc. Great post, though – really enjoyed it!

    (I wrote about King in a similar context awhile ago, too – check it out, if you’re interested: http://thenewdorkreviewofbooks.blogspot.com/2009/11/under-dome-of-debate-genre-vs-literary.html )

    1. Whether people in 100 years will be reading King or not is anyone’s guess and you’re completely right that, just because they’re popular now, doesn’t mean they’ll be remembered well into the future. But, if I had to make a wager, I’d put money on King over most other writers of the day. Patterson, Grisham, Koontz, Cornwell et all will all be forgotten just because their work is, by and large, forgettable. Love it or hate it, King’s stiff isn’t.
      Thanks for the link to your post, I enjoyed it and completely agree!

  7. I read a lot of King in high school, then went through a few years of shunning him – dismissing him as “low literature” – and I’m glad I’ve come back around to his work. Anyone who attacks King in the way Bloom does can’t have read him, because as you write, the horror of his work doesn’t come so much from the aliens or dogs or what-have-you, but what his characters do to each other. Sure, his books could probably be whittled down, but I’m happy with them as they are because he does such a great job of developing characters over those pages that an editor would probably cut if he were an unknown writer. I just read a post earlier today (from who I forget) about King, and combined with your writing I’m dying now to get back to him. Maybe it’s time I try the dark tower?

    1. Definitely read the Dark Tower series. It’s not the best, but it’s engrossing and will have you tied up for a while. I’m starting it again now and it’s just as good the second time around. Thanks for stopping by!

    1. On Writing was wonderful. I think I’ve read it three times. You’re right about how he inveighs against adverbs in On Writing but continues to overuse them in his writing. I guess bad habits are hard to break, even ones we know are bad. I’ll head over and check out your post. Thanks for coming by!

  8. I love King’s older works like The Stand, Firestarter, the Dead Zone, and I think he writes fantastic short stories and novellas. Lisey’s Story is probably my favorite of the newer books, but I don’t think he’s been great in some time. I do think he’s an amazing storyteller, because he somehow gets at the heart of what really scares people, and it isn’t always the supernatural, it’s usually (1) other people or (2) everyday stuff like dogs, sewer grates, clowns, etc.

    1. I know that people tend to like his older stuff better, but I am just as happy with most of his newer work as well. I thought Under the Dome was slightly weak, but I still had a hell of a good time reading it. Thanks for coming by!

  9. His short stories freak me out. I can’t see rats without thinking of “Nona” and can’t see a storm rolling in without thinking of “The Mist”. And of course I hate monkeys that play the cymbals from “The Monkey”. 🙂

  10. First, this post is one of the best written, most readable blog posts ever! Your introductory paragraph is delicious, and sets up paragraph two perfectly.

    Like most high school students, I read a King novel or two, but later in life I dismissed him as somehow too populist or “mass market”! I was such a snob. Those were my *New Yorker* years. Then I read On Writing:whoa! New-found respect. Some of his short stories (The Man in the Black Suit) are worthy descendents of Hawthorne. In short-I agree with all you’ve said here-kudos.

    1. Wow, I’m not sure it deserves all that much praise, but thanks anyhow! I appreciate it! I never really looked at King as too populist. Perhaps because I started on Dean Koontz somewhere around 12 years old and then moved up to King. I completely agree with you about “On Writing” and amazing book and one of King’s that I’ve read multiple times. Thanks for coming by!

  11. Stumbled across this post by way of Reddit.

    Love this defense of one of my favorite writers. Believable characters are what stood out to me in the first King book I read, and they are what has kept me reading them ever since. I will never understand the idea that a writer can be popular or good, but not both. A close friend of mine likes to wave off King’s books with, “He writes a full-length novel every year,” because apparently a good writer also cannot be prolific. Go figure.

    1. Thanks for coming by Cici! I also don’t understand the either/or dichotomy which argues that a writer cannot be simultaneously popular and literary. It’s an inexcusably narrow-minded position, one that should be avoided by the so-called intelligentsia (I’m looking at you, Bloom). But, the haters will be haters and the rest of us who actually appreciate King for the real writer he is deserve to be the smug ones.

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