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.)