Stephen King: Digging Beneath the Topsoil

Yesterday, several friends pointed me to an article in Salon.com titled, “My Stephen King Problem” by a fellow named Dwight Allen. Actually, they pointed me to an excellent rebuttal to the article by Erik Nelson titled, “Stephen King: You Can Be Popular and Good.” You might consider reading both before continuing.

I suspect they directed me to these posts for two reasons: (1) I am a writer of genre fiction; (2) I am a Stephen King fan. With regard to the latter, I think it is important to state for the record that I wasn’t always a Stephen King fan. Before I read any of his books, I rather arrogantly dismissed him as “just another horror writer.” Then, sometime back in 2001, I read ‘Salem’s Lot. I thought the first two-thirds of the book were excellent. But then the monsters showed up and I thought the book got silly. I decided King wasn’t for me. That said, a few years later, I decided to give him another try. I read Needful Things and had almost the exact same reaction. They say the third time is a charm, however, and in September 2009, not long after our son was born, I sat down to read King’s book On Writing and I absolutely loved it. Of course, that was nonfiction, but in it, he talked about several of his books and stories and charmed the reader in such a way as to make it virtually impossible not to give his fiction another try. So I decided to start from the beginning and I read Carrie. And you know what? I thought it was a pretty good book. I followed that up with The Shining (I’d never seen the movie) and I enjoyed that one as well. And then I read It and I still consider that to be one of the finest pieces of fiction I’ve ever read.

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So what changed? How did I go from dismissing King to trying and disliking King to finally loving and enjoying King? Well, I changed. When I first read King, I don’t think I understood what it was he was trying to do with his fiction. I allowed preconceived notions and stereotypes get in the way. After I read On Writing, I began to see that I was wrong. I began to understand what it was King was trying to do and what he was trying to do–it seemed to me, was rather remarkable. King, it seemed to me, was attempting to write popular fiction without dumbing it down for mass audiences. Instead, he layered it with subtext, building up something truly remarkable, if you knew where to look for it. Of course, not everyone does. I didn’t at first. And I’d guess that many casual readers of King’s books and stories just find them to be entertaining stories–and that’s perfectly fine. But if you are aware–if you look deeper. You’ll see a whole lot more. This really began subtly for me in Carrie with the metafictional approach King took to the story. But it came to a climax with It, around with so much subtext is centered. It by itself is a deeply disturbing, powerful, moving book about childhood fears, growing up, loss, all of that. In the context of King’s entire body of work, It acts like some massive gravitational force that attracts everything else to its center. There are scattered references to It, Derry, and characters from the novel throughout all of King’s body of work from Bag of Bones right up to 11/22/63. It is this deep, layered approach to fiction that makes King so appealing to so many audiences. Or as Erik Nelson puts it, it’s what makes King “popular and good.”

I preface with all of this because I wanted to show that an open mind is one that can be changed. Mine was and I am grateful for that third try. In the years since, I’ve read quite a lot of King books. I am particularly fond of his short fiction, but nothing has quite stood up to the level of It. But then again, most non-King novels I’ve read don’t stand up to it, either. I was disturbed, and then annoyed and finally frustrated when I read Allen’s piece. I think there were three reasons for this.

First, it comes off more as a defensive, ad hominem attack on King, the writer (not the work) and successful writers in general. Allen writes, for instance:

And, anyway, Stephen King didn’t need me to buy his books or even to read them, as did, perhaps, some of my scuffling writer friends. He was doing fine, turning out a book a year up there in Maine, hauling the proceeds to the bank in steamer trunks.

I’ve never understood the point of ad hominem attacks in literary criticism. They seem pointless. Indeed, they often deflect from the point of the criticism. But there is one value they have, especially in today’s hyper-connected world. They attract attention. People read them. They are the literary version of the fight after school at the flagpole, with the entire student body crowding around to watch. Or put another way: they are popular. And since Allen derides King for his popularity and mourns his friends’ anonymity, it makes his attack seem hypocritical.

Second, Allen seems to think that the purpose of fiction is divided into two mutually exclusive buckets: truth or escapism. With the former, it seems, he refers to the language, and the latter, it seems, refers to what I would consider entertainment. He wants the former and derides the latter. But why do they have to be mutually exclusive? The language in Shakespeare is “true” and the plays are vastly entertaining, even the dark ones. If a writer chooses to be true without being entertaining, then shouldn’t they expect to be poor sellers compared to someone like King? After all, “entertainment” is the hook that gets you in the door. While Allen seems to brush off King’s fiction as popular merely because it is entertaining, it seems to me the other way around. King uses an entertaining story to bring the kind of “truth” to which Allen refers to a vastly wider audience. It’s a kind of literary bait and switch. If some readers are merely entertained, well, they get their money’s worth. Those of us who can also see the depth; those of us who can ply through the levels of meaning get a whole lot more. That is the real power of King’s fiction.

Third, and perhaps this bothered me most of all, Allen makes all of these remarks while openly admitting that he never read King. What’s more, he deliberately avoided reading King. This is reminiscent of that age-old complaint writers have of critics who review books without seeming to have read them. Better still, it reminds me of a typical dinnertime conversation with my three-year old:

“Hey buddy, why don’t you try your green beans?”

“I don’t like green beans, daddy.”

“But you’ve never had them? How do you know you don’t like them?”

Eventually Allen does read some King. He reads Christine and Pet Sematary and I won’t argue with his criticisms. But I do find his selections interesting. A quick Google search would have suggested what are some of King’s generally agreed upon “best” books: ItThe Stand, and perhaps even The Dark Tower series. Instead, Allen seemed to have picked books that even King has admitted are not among his best. I’m not saying Allen was deliberately choosing examples to fit his argument, but I find it to be an interesting coincidence.

And it seems particularly interesting to me that someone so focused on “literary” fiction, hardly makes mention of King’s short fiction. Allen refers to a few stories published in The New Yorker, but doesn’t refer to any of King’s collections, or any of his short fiction with a critical eye in the same way he does his novels. I wonder what he would have thought about the stories in, say, Different Seasons, which include “The Body” and “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”? I wonder what he would have thought of  “1922” included in Full Dark, No Stars?

Allen concludes with:

King may be an adequate enough escape from life, if that’s all you require from a book of fiction, but his work (or what I’ve read of it) is a far cry from literature, which, at its best, is, sentence by sentence, a revelation about life.

I think this illustrates all of my objections quite nicely. Literature is not binary, it is not black or white. Nor should it be. I was entertained by the writing in The Grapes of Wrath; I was moved by the story. The same is true for a novel like It. I blame Allen mostly for being careless in his research and choosing books that are not representative of King’s body of work. As to whether or not King’s work is a far cry from literature? Well, as I said early on, King layers his fiction, writes on many levels at once and I imagine some readers can’t (or don’t want to) see beneath the topsoil. I suspect Allen is one of these readers.

5 thoughts on “Stephen King: Digging Beneath the Topsoil

  1. An excellent and well-reasoned rebuttal to an overlong and severely flawed critique. Having only read a few King works myself, I’m not exactly the biggest fan of his works. Perhaps he succeeded too well with me; Christine and Carrie, for example, both left me feeling a bit too unpleasant for rereading. I do, however, think he’s deserving of the praise and attention he receives. Even without having yet read them, there’s no denying that books like It and The Stand represent major contributions to the world of contemporary fiction. _On Writing_ is easily the best book I’ve ever read on the subject, and I’m not sure I’d be following the writer’s path today if I hadn’t read it. Most of all, specific works aside, King seems to be an outstanding human being. I may not be a tremendous fan of his works, but I’m a fan of the man himself. Kudos for the spectacular defense.

  2. I read King’s work up through Cujo, when I remember wondering why I wanted to put myself through such an unpleasant experience, however well crafted. I decided to try again with 11/22/63. While I agree with you entirely that Allen’s critique of King is coming from an uninformed and biased place, I did find myself agreeing with his particular comments on 11/22/63. It’s interesting to learn that the Derry section of that book gains resonance from the connection to It (which I haven’t read, and so didn’t get), because that whole section, in context to the rest of the novel, seemed superfluous and out of place when I read it, as if he wanted to insert a horror story into an alternate history/historical fiction novel.

    1. Scott, I hear you on Cujo. Probably not a bad book, but I had trouble getting through it. (I think that is the book that King says he doesn’t ever remember writing.) That whole Derry thing in 11/22/63 is a good example of what I meant by digging beneath the topsoil. If you’ve never read It or any of the other Derry books or stories, it probably doesn’t mean much to you and that’s okay. You still get something out of the story, but it’s topsoil. Maybe for some that section seems long-winded, out-of-place, whatever. But if you do have those subtexts, those roots underground that form a kind of network with other works, then it takes on all kinds of new meaning–particularly the scene when he encounters the kids dancing at the library in Derry.

      I haven’t yet read the Dark Tower books, but I’ve been told that those books are a kind of Grand Central Station of subtext for all of King’s other work. Wikipedia gives lots of examples of this.

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