Commentary Magazine


Topic: Stephen King

A Passion for (Literary) Fashion

Stephen King turns 65 today. Happy birthday! Dwight Allen’s essay “My Stephen King Problem,” published in the Los Angeles Review of Books in July, does an excellent job of summing up why I too have never been able to read America’s most popular novelist. “The writing is at times so weak,” Allen writes of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon — “so pat, so lazy — that I no longer imagined that King was attempting anything other than getting his story from Point A to Point B, even if he was doing that none too quickly.” King’s “pacing,” in book after book, is consistently “off.” The novels unfold “at a slug’s pace,” because they are “bloated” with scenes that go on too long and “unremarkable” social observations and period detail that is “slathered thickly on, as if to hide some vacancy.” For a novelist who is lauded for his single-minded devotion to story, King is addicted to much else besides, and surprisingly boring.

On King’s disappointments as a novelist Allen specifies almost exactly why The Shining and Under the Dome made me squirm (even if, unlike him, I could never get sufficiently worked up to spell out my discontent). When Allen moves on from the shortcomings of King’s novels to the question why they appeal to so many readers, though, I find myself being left behind:

Clearly, King’s readers — many of whom seem to get hooked on him when they are adolescents — don’t care that the sentences he writes or the scenes he constructs are dull. There must be something in the narrative arc, or in the nature of King’s characters, that these readers can’t resist. My sense is that King appeals to the aggrieved adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adult. . . . King coddles his readers, all nice, good, ordinary, likeable people (just like the heroes of his books), though this doesn’t completely explain why these readers are so tolerant of the bloat in these novels, why they will let King go on for a couple hundred pages about some matter that has no vital connection to the subject of the book.

The commentators to his article were appalled by Allen’s “snobbery,” his “air of superiority,” his “irritating condescension.” As it happens, I largely agree with them: when this style of armchair psychologizing substitutes for literary analysis, the critic should pack up and go home. But the tone and the amateurism are not the worst thing about his speculations. The worst thing is that Allen himself admits they are inadequate, since they fail to explain why King’s readers are “tolerant of the bloat.”

A better explanation is needed. Why are so many of King’s readers bloat-tolerant? As one of Allen’s commentators (a confessed King fan named Erik) cried, “I want story, I want meat, and I want to be transported by something other than my admiration of the author’s talent.” But why are so many of King’s readers satisfied with such mediocre cuts of the meat?

The usual answer is that “genre fiction” appeals to some readers (more readers), while “literary fiction” appeals to other readers (fewer readers). As I’ve said before — more than once, for that matter — this apportionment is clumsy and pathetic, the tactless swapping of critical terminology for marketing labels. The only question about a book is whether it is any good, even though good is a term absolutely relative. There are a lot of “genre” writers who are very good writers: the cowboy novelist Eugene Manlove Rhodes, the crime novelist Jim Thompson, the detective novelist Ross Macdonald, the spy novelist Charles McCarry, the boy’s novelist John R. Tunis, the SF novelist William Gibson, the horror novelist Dean Koontz, the romance novelist Jane Austen.

Class divisions in literature cannot explain why some writers are good, both in the lower class and the higher, and some are atrocious. Allen caught the sleeve of a better explanation when he set out his expectations for any work of fiction:

Among the things I hope for when I open a book of fiction is that each sentence I read will be right and true and beautiful, that the particular music of those sentences will bring me a pleasure I wouldn’t be able to find the exact equivalent of in another writer. . . .

This is pretty much my standard too, my basic minimum and my ne plus ultra. Isaac Rosenfeld says somewhere that, if he is to enjoy a piece of writing, something interesting must be going on in the sentences. The whole of the controversy over William Giraldi’s review of Alix Ohlin’s fiction was over the importance of sentences: for Giraldi, it is a necessary and sufficient condition of literature that its sentences do something more than “limp[] onto the page proudly indifferent to pitch or vigor”; for his detractors, it was “mean” of Giraldi to expect any such thing.

But the question remains. Why are some readers capable of ignoring or overlooking Stephen King’s flat and uninteresting sentences, while other readers are incapable of doing so? Again, this is no class division. First-rate critics like Arthur Krystal and Thomas Mallon have praised King’s books (although they remain silent about King’s prose). [Editor’s Note: See below.] And in fact, I mean to say just exactly what my phrasing implies: the readers who are able to ignore or overlook sentences that are swollen stiff with cliché have a talent that lesser readers — readers who can’t get past these miserable sentences — seem to lack. It’s a talent not unlike the willing suspension of disbelief. Here, though, it is the willing suspension of disgust.

My guess is that readers who are “transported” by King’s novels permit themselves the pleasure of enjoying literary fashion, while critics for whom the novels never rise above their sentences are squares and recluses and phobics who feel compelled to resist fashion at all costs. As the essayist Paul Graham points out, fashions are “arbitrary” and “invisible to most people.” You pick up an old photograph of yourself from the Seventies, wearing bell-bottom jeans and hair down to where it stops by itself, and you laugh. It rarely dawns on you, though, that the photograph of you from last week will be just as laughable in forty years.

But exactly the same is true of fiction. Take Harold Bell Wright, for example. Wright, who wrote 18 novels between 1902 and 1942, was the Stephen King of his era. Harper and Brothers once tabulated his sales and discovered that Wright’s books averaged more than 700,000 copies sold. Over 12 and a half million copies of his books were sold during his lifetime, that is. His most famous novel, The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911), sold 1,635,000 copies — an astonishing figure for the time. Wright was the “apostle of the wholesome,” just as King is the apostle of horror. Like King’s, his novels supplied material to the movies (Gary Cooper’s first starring role was in the 1926 production of Barbara Worth). Like King, Wright was jeered by the critics, but was beloved of his readers, who went back to him again and again for the red meat of story. Even a “snob” critic like William Morton Payne, writing in a “snob” magazine like The Dial, recognized Wright’s appeal:

The story [The Winning of Barbara Worth] has a great deal of character-interest, and of the interest that goes with tense situations and the solving of difficult problems. Its materials have been used many times before, but they are made to seem almost fresh by the largeness of their treatment. Still, the descriptive parts seem to us overdone. . . . The style of the book is matter-of-fact, and without any sort of distinction. But in spite of its long-windedness, and of the stretches which rival its own desert [setting] in aridity, the story is not unmoving or unsatisfying, and we can see in it many of the elements of popularity.

Yet no one reads Harold Bell Wright today. Begin at the climatic scene from The Winning of Barbara Worth and you can see why:

     In the office of The King’s Basin Land and Irrigation Company, James Greenfield was aroused by a knock at the door. He lifted his head from his arms and looked around as if awakened out of a deep sleep.
     Another knock, and he slipped the picture he held in his hand into his pocket and called, “Come in.”
     The door opened and Jefferson Worth stepped into the room.
     For a moment the president of the wrecked Company sat staring at his business rival, then he leaped to his feet, his fists clenched and his face working with passion. “You can’t come in here, sir. Get out!” he said with the voice and manner he would have assumed in speaking to a trespassing dog.
     Jefferson Worth stood still. “I have business of importance with you, Mr. Greenfield,” he said, and his air of quiet dignity contrasted strangely with the rage of the larger man.
     “You can have no business with me of any sort whatever. I have nothing to do with your kind. This is my private office. I tell you to get out.”
     Jefferson Worth turned calmly as though to obey, but instead of leaving the room closed the door and locked it. Then, placing the small grip he carried upon the table, he deliberately went close to the threatening president and said coldly: “This is rank nonsense, Greenfield. I won’t leave this office until I’m through with what I came to do. I have business with you that concerns you as much as it does me.”
     “You’re a damned thief, a low sharper! I tell you I have nothing to do with you. Now get out or I’ll throw you out!”
     Jefferson Worth answered in his exact, precise manner, as though carefully choosing and considering his words: “No, you won’t throw me out. You’ll listen to what I have come to tell you. The rest of your statement, Greenfield, is false and you know it. It will be just as well for you not to repeat it.” The last low-spoken words did not appear to be uttered as a threat but as a calm statement of a carefully considered fact. James Greenfield felt as a man who permits himself to rage against an immovable obstacle—as one who spends his strength cursing a stone wall that bars his way or a rock that lies in his path. With an effort he regained a measure of his self-control.
     “Well, out with it. What do you want?”

After a hundred years, the phrases that are both routine and awkward are both obvious and laughable (“the voice and manner he would have assumed in speaking to a trespassing dog,” “one who spends his strength cursing a stone wall that bars his way or a rock that lies in his path”). The dialogue is wooden and phony. The narrative force is detectable, but just barely — you have to push yourself across its length. Raise your hand if you wished for more. (Project Gutenberg has a digital copy if your hand is still in the air.) The plain truth is that literary fashion has changed and moved on, and the mannerisms that were invisible to readers in 1911 have become ridiculous.

Stephen King’s novels are like badly acted films. Those who enjoy them are endowed with the God-given ability to turn a blind eye to the defects and allow themselves to be carried away. In a hundred years, when it becomes clear that what they agreed to overlook were fashions that are now impossible to ignore, the novels’ appeal will have diminished to the vanishing point.
____________________

Update: After writing the above, I received the following letter:

I’m afraid that the usually precise D. G. Myers in his astute Literary Commentary blog (9-21-2012) has confused me with another critic. Although I allotted some space to Stephen King in a piece I wrote for the New Yorker, I was careful not to praise his books or his prose. I simply acknowledged in neutral tones Mr. King’s burgeoning reputation. Like Mr. Myers, I find King’s novels impossible to read for the simple reason that his sentences send me packing long before I know what he’s writing about.
                                                                                                                   Arthur Krystal

I am pleased to make the correction, and to offer Mr. Krystal my deepest apologies. Also glad to enroll him among the King skeptics.

Stephen King turns 65 today. Happy birthday! Dwight Allen’s essay “My Stephen King Problem,” published in the Los Angeles Review of Books in July, does an excellent job of summing up why I too have never been able to read America’s most popular novelist. “The writing is at times so weak,” Allen writes of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon — “so pat, so lazy — that I no longer imagined that King was attempting anything other than getting his story from Point A to Point B, even if he was doing that none too quickly.” King’s “pacing,” in book after book, is consistently “off.” The novels unfold “at a slug’s pace,” because they are “bloated” with scenes that go on too long and “unremarkable” social observations and period detail that is “slathered thickly on, as if to hide some vacancy.” For a novelist who is lauded for his single-minded devotion to story, King is addicted to much else besides, and surprisingly boring.

On King’s disappointments as a novelist Allen specifies almost exactly why The Shining and Under the Dome made me squirm (even if, unlike him, I could never get sufficiently worked up to spell out my discontent). When Allen moves on from the shortcomings of King’s novels to the question why they appeal to so many readers, though, I find myself being left behind:

Clearly, King’s readers — many of whom seem to get hooked on him when they are adolescents — don’t care that the sentences he writes or the scenes he constructs are dull. There must be something in the narrative arc, or in the nature of King’s characters, that these readers can’t resist. My sense is that King appeals to the aggrieved adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adult. . . . King coddles his readers, all nice, good, ordinary, likeable people (just like the heroes of his books), though this doesn’t completely explain why these readers are so tolerant of the bloat in these novels, why they will let King go on for a couple hundred pages about some matter that has no vital connection to the subject of the book.

The commentators to his article were appalled by Allen’s “snobbery,” his “air of superiority,” his “irritating condescension.” As it happens, I largely agree with them: when this style of armchair psychologizing substitutes for literary analysis, the critic should pack up and go home. But the tone and the amateurism are not the worst thing about his speculations. The worst thing is that Allen himself admits they are inadequate, since they fail to explain why King’s readers are “tolerant of the bloat.”

A better explanation is needed. Why are so many of King’s readers bloat-tolerant? As one of Allen’s commentators (a confessed King fan named Erik) cried, “I want story, I want meat, and I want to be transported by something other than my admiration of the author’s talent.” But why are so many of King’s readers satisfied with such mediocre cuts of the meat?

The usual answer is that “genre fiction” appeals to some readers (more readers), while “literary fiction” appeals to other readers (fewer readers). As I’ve said before — more than once, for that matter — this apportionment is clumsy and pathetic, the tactless swapping of critical terminology for marketing labels. The only question about a book is whether it is any good, even though good is a term absolutely relative. There are a lot of “genre” writers who are very good writers: the cowboy novelist Eugene Manlove Rhodes, the crime novelist Jim Thompson, the detective novelist Ross Macdonald, the spy novelist Charles McCarry, the boy’s novelist John R. Tunis, the SF novelist William Gibson, the horror novelist Dean Koontz, the romance novelist Jane Austen.

Class divisions in literature cannot explain why some writers are good, both in the lower class and the higher, and some are atrocious. Allen caught the sleeve of a better explanation when he set out his expectations for any work of fiction:

Among the things I hope for when I open a book of fiction is that each sentence I read will be right and true and beautiful, that the particular music of those sentences will bring me a pleasure I wouldn’t be able to find the exact equivalent of in another writer. . . .

This is pretty much my standard too, my basic minimum and my ne plus ultra. Isaac Rosenfeld says somewhere that, if he is to enjoy a piece of writing, something interesting must be going on in the sentences. The whole of the controversy over William Giraldi’s review of Alix Ohlin’s fiction was over the importance of sentences: for Giraldi, it is a necessary and sufficient condition of literature that its sentences do something more than “limp[] onto the page proudly indifferent to pitch or vigor”; for his detractors, it was “mean” of Giraldi to expect any such thing.

But the question remains. Why are some readers capable of ignoring or overlooking Stephen King’s flat and uninteresting sentences, while other readers are incapable of doing so? Again, this is no class division. First-rate critics like Arthur Krystal and Thomas Mallon have praised King’s books (although they remain silent about King’s prose). [Editor’s Note: See below.] And in fact, I mean to say just exactly what my phrasing implies: the readers who are able to ignore or overlook sentences that are swollen stiff with cliché have a talent that lesser readers — readers who can’t get past these miserable sentences — seem to lack. It’s a talent not unlike the willing suspension of disbelief. Here, though, it is the willing suspension of disgust.

My guess is that readers who are “transported” by King’s novels permit themselves the pleasure of enjoying literary fashion, while critics for whom the novels never rise above their sentences are squares and recluses and phobics who feel compelled to resist fashion at all costs. As the essayist Paul Graham points out, fashions are “arbitrary” and “invisible to most people.” You pick up an old photograph of yourself from the Seventies, wearing bell-bottom jeans and hair down to where it stops by itself, and you laugh. It rarely dawns on you, though, that the photograph of you from last week will be just as laughable in forty years.

But exactly the same is true of fiction. Take Harold Bell Wright, for example. Wright, who wrote 18 novels between 1902 and 1942, was the Stephen King of his era. Harper and Brothers once tabulated his sales and discovered that Wright’s books averaged more than 700,000 copies sold. Over 12 and a half million copies of his books were sold during his lifetime, that is. His most famous novel, The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911), sold 1,635,000 copies — an astonishing figure for the time. Wright was the “apostle of the wholesome,” just as King is the apostle of horror. Like King’s, his novels supplied material to the movies (Gary Cooper’s first starring role was in the 1926 production of Barbara Worth). Like King, Wright was jeered by the critics, but was beloved of his readers, who went back to him again and again for the red meat of story. Even a “snob” critic like William Morton Payne, writing in a “snob” magazine like The Dial, recognized Wright’s appeal:

The story [The Winning of Barbara Worth] has a great deal of character-interest, and of the interest that goes with tense situations and the solving of difficult problems. Its materials have been used many times before, but they are made to seem almost fresh by the largeness of their treatment. Still, the descriptive parts seem to us overdone. . . . The style of the book is matter-of-fact, and without any sort of distinction. But in spite of its long-windedness, and of the stretches which rival its own desert [setting] in aridity, the story is not unmoving or unsatisfying, and we can see in it many of the elements of popularity.

Yet no one reads Harold Bell Wright today. Begin at the climatic scene from The Winning of Barbara Worth and you can see why:

     In the office of The King’s Basin Land and Irrigation Company, James Greenfield was aroused by a knock at the door. He lifted his head from his arms and looked around as if awakened out of a deep sleep.
     Another knock, and he slipped the picture he held in his hand into his pocket and called, “Come in.”
     The door opened and Jefferson Worth stepped into the room.
     For a moment the president of the wrecked Company sat staring at his business rival, then he leaped to his feet, his fists clenched and his face working with passion. “You can’t come in here, sir. Get out!” he said with the voice and manner he would have assumed in speaking to a trespassing dog.
     Jefferson Worth stood still. “I have business of importance with you, Mr. Greenfield,” he said, and his air of quiet dignity contrasted strangely with the rage of the larger man.
     “You can have no business with me of any sort whatever. I have nothing to do with your kind. This is my private office. I tell you to get out.”
     Jefferson Worth turned calmly as though to obey, but instead of leaving the room closed the door and locked it. Then, placing the small grip he carried upon the table, he deliberately went close to the threatening president and said coldly: “This is rank nonsense, Greenfield. I won’t leave this office until I’m through with what I came to do. I have business with you that concerns you as much as it does me.”
     “You’re a damned thief, a low sharper! I tell you I have nothing to do with you. Now get out or I’ll throw you out!”
     Jefferson Worth answered in his exact, precise manner, as though carefully choosing and considering his words: “No, you won’t throw me out. You’ll listen to what I have come to tell you. The rest of your statement, Greenfield, is false and you know it. It will be just as well for you not to repeat it.” The last low-spoken words did not appear to be uttered as a threat but as a calm statement of a carefully considered fact. James Greenfield felt as a man who permits himself to rage against an immovable obstacle—as one who spends his strength cursing a stone wall that bars his way or a rock that lies in his path. With an effort he regained a measure of his self-control.
     “Well, out with it. What do you want?”

After a hundred years, the phrases that are both routine and awkward are both obvious and laughable (“the voice and manner he would have assumed in speaking to a trespassing dog,” “one who spends his strength cursing a stone wall that bars his way or a rock that lies in his path”). The dialogue is wooden and phony. The narrative force is detectable, but just barely — you have to push yourself across its length. Raise your hand if you wished for more. (Project Gutenberg has a digital copy if your hand is still in the air.) The plain truth is that literary fashion has changed and moved on, and the mannerisms that were invisible to readers in 1911 have become ridiculous.

Stephen King’s novels are like badly acted films. Those who enjoy them are endowed with the God-given ability to turn a blind eye to the defects and allow themselves to be carried away. In a hundred years, when it becomes clear that what they agreed to overlook were fashions that are now impossible to ignore, the novels’ appeal will have diminished to the vanishing point.
____________________

Update: After writing the above, I received the following letter:

I’m afraid that the usually precise D. G. Myers in his astute Literary Commentary blog (9-21-2012) has confused me with another critic. Although I allotted some space to Stephen King in a piece I wrote for the New Yorker, I was careful not to praise his books or his prose. I simply acknowledged in neutral tones Mr. King’s burgeoning reputation. Like Mr. Myers, I find King’s novels impossible to read for the simple reason that his sentences send me packing long before I know what he’s writing about.
                                                                                                                   Arthur Krystal

I am pleased to make the correction, and to offer Mr. Krystal my deepest apologies. Also glad to enroll him among the King skeptics.

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