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.”

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A Passion for (Literary) Fashion

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