"The Chill Is Gone" and "Why Blacks Love Bill Clinton"

Readers respond to a call for Stephen King's retirement and an interview about blacks' overwhelming support for Bill Clinton.

By Letters to the Editor
Published February 22, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Read "The Chill Is Gone"

Please give Stephen King a break with the calls for his retirement. He entertains millions with his writing and he'll decide his future, thank you very much. While it can be fairly argued that he has not produced his "best work" during the past 15 years or so, and it's a fun, simple exercise for us lesser-known folks (that would be everyone except King), it's no reason to demand he close up shop. If it matters, as I recall, King did publish in the New Yorker before his accident, including a wonderful piece about his son's Little League team in 1990, and he also received an O. Henry award for a short story several years back. I find it hilarious that one author currently working on a book about a Kennedy (now that's recycling, fella. I'm sure the word "Camelot" won't be used at all) harps on another author for not churning out the most original material over a 30-year career, all the while using old, familiar one-liners about King's supposed "out-of-touchness" and racism that is to be found in his work. It is the same, tired literary elitism that climbed out of its hole last season with the Franzen-Oprah mess. The last thing King's critics want is for him to retire. They'd have nothing to write about.

-- Mark Wiberg

I agree with Richard Blow's assessment that Stephen King's skills and commitment as a novelist have plummeted over the past two decades. Early stories such as "The Stand," "It," "Rage," "The Long Walk" and "Stand By Me" were examples of King's deftness at depicting otherworldly evil and evil that wears a distinctly human face. His ability to craft tales of such breadth and inventiveness along with stories of adolescent wrath and asperity drew me to him as a horror writer with more to offer than simplistic, here-comes-the-bogeyman schlock. However, recent attempts have faltered miserably. I almost couldn't finish "Desperation," it was so egregiously derivative and stale.

That being said, I'm surprised that Blow did not mention King's "Dark Tower" series. If there is any bright spot to King's recent work, it is these four novels. The science fiction/fantasy genre is not King's gig, but that is precisely what makes these books so much more compelling than his usual unimaginative drivel. By turning away from pure horror, King has given his readers a scintillating dream world saturated with brilliantly descriptive prose, fully formed characters and a story that is part oddball quest and part extraordinary vision. These four novels are a countermeasure to King's more comatose, assembly-line, paperback fodder.

If King does retire, I hope that he can see the "Dark Tower" series through to the end. I think we deserve it.

-- Matt Hutchinson

Frankly, Richard Blow's article smacks of a personal attack -- perhaps due to that refused autograph.

Why pick on King, who is at least a master of dialogue and inner monologue, when most of our other bestselling authors are just as self-cannibalizing? Does anyone doubt that Grisham and Clancy, Rice and Koontz haven't rewritten the same books a dozen times each? And some of our more "literary" voices have been mining their own ore veins for decades, too. Why suggest that King "retire" and allow Bellow and Updike to reiterate themes they exhausted in the '70s?

Oh well, it's clear that there's some envy involved here. After all, a hundred million dollars can't buy respect, as King has learned.

"Black House" atrocious? Strange, most critics have liked it.

Can't please everyone. And this letter proves it.

-- William Gagliani

I have no problem with the argument that King is perhaps approaching the outer reaches of originality in his work. "Dreamcatcher" and the forthcoming "Buick 8" certainly support that idea. However, I thought the author of "The Chill Is Gone" missed an opportunity to discuss something very interesting with respect to King's career. It seems to me that King has somehow managed to reach a pinnacle and the low point of his career at the same time.

"The Chill Is Gone" focuses on King's earlier works, "Carrie," "Salem's Lot," and so on. While these works will forever define King's image as a writer, I think that King has shown great development in some of his later works. Specifically, I am referring to "Wizard and Glass," "Bag of Bones" and "Hearts in Atlantis."

All three of these books, in my opinion, focus on and study human emotion, specifically love, in a manner that overshadows anything King had, or has, done. "Wizard and Glass" is a tragic story of young love lost, and the age-old question that haunts humanity of "what might have been." "Hearts in Atlantis" focuses on the love a child can feel, and how it shapes a life to come. And finally, "Bag of Bones" is a story of love's endurance beyond the grave.

All three of these books, to me, represent the culmination, and arrival, of Stephen King as something far more than a genre writer. These books all break the mold on what people think of King. Rather than rattle off "Carrie," "Salem's Lot" and "Firestarter," people should recognize these works. To me, these works represent what King is and was capable of achieving as a writer.

Sadly, for reasons we may never know, it does appear that this "arrival" has been short-lived. However, I think that any discussion of King's recent ebb should include, at a minimum, remarks on his also recent arrival as a writer who did much more than tell stories of vampires, evil cars and telekinetic children.

-- Clint Bogden

Sadly, you're right: The emperor no longer has any clothes.

-- Betsy Mason

In junior high, I smuggled tattered paperbacks of "Pet Semetary" and "Salem's Lot" inside my Trapper Keeper to read when my cranky old teachers lazily chattered about how kids today don't know enough about current events and how we should hate and fear the Soviets and support the nuclear arms race and other things they talked about to kill time instead of teaching. For this reason, and because those were plain old-fashioned good stories, I feel sentimental about Mr. King.

But lately, I've come to feel as Richard Blow does. The hairpin plots have been replaced by cliché. The dialogue reads like the script of a bad Fox drama pilot. Often, there are inconsistencies in the point of view, for crying out loud. There are thousands of first-time authors out there trying to get their novels published -- novels that are a hundred times more original and polished -- who get stacks of rejection letters and no leads. Meanwhile, Stephen King gets any chicken scratch he writes hyped to the max and makes bestseller list every time. This is profits over people at its worst, and consumers lose, too, by being denied the opportunity to read something fresh by an author who hasn't yet exhausted his or her creativity.

It wouldn't be a bad thing if Stephen King were to slow down on his writing and give some new authors a chance. Hell, he could even endorse them, Oprah-style, to give their sales a boost: a win-win-win-win for the publishers, consumers, authors and Mr. King. A young author can only hope.

-- Guthrie S.

Yes, Stephen King's output is patchy in quality. He's a compulsive writer, and his publishers know that he'll be a bestseller regardless of how they edit.

Nevertheless, from "Salem's Lot" through to "Bag of Bones" (the one that actually got me hooked was "Rose Madder") King has produced some incredibly readable novels over the past 30 years. If he wants to stop, OK, but I'll be sorry. While he writes, there's hope.

-- Jane Carnall

Richard Blow's article "The Chill Is Gone" is primarily a memorial to King's horror fiction, and that's understandable -- King has been typecast as a horror writer, and deservingly so. However, Blow doesn't mention any of King's excellent short fiction. I am thinking in particular of "Different Seasons," the collection of short stories that includes "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," "Apt Pupil," "The Body" (the basis for the film "Stand by Me") and "The Breathing Method." While most of these stories do contain some element of horror, they are relatively devoid of the supernatural. More important, they are excellent examples of King's gift for storytelling. The short stories King recently published in the New Yorker -- "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away" (Jan. 29, 2001) and "The Death of Jack Hamilton" (Dec. 24, 2001) -- are also fine works of fiction. Strong and active characters, organic but forward-moving plots, clever twists and definitive conclusions -- it's almost refreshing to read a King story amid the strange conformism of contemporary short fiction.

Admittedly, King does not have the linguistic flair (or the linguistic ambition) that distinguishes much contemporary literary fiction from the bestsellers and is occasionally pointed out for the Emperor's new clothes that it sometimes is (as B.R. Myers most recently attempted in the July/August issue of the Atlantic Monthly). But what King does have -- as evinced by his early novels and the short stories mentioned above -- is an ability to tell complete, thorough and honest stories at a time when irony has obfuscated the point of fiction and driven so much of it into desperate incomprehensibility. True, we need the literary heirs of Joyce pressing the limits of language, the ambition of the Jonathan Franzens and the William Gaddises of the world. But while the rest of the reading public tries to catch up, we need some honest fictional commentary without the heady themes, incongruous similes or dripping irony.

Perhaps what irks many of King's detractors is the knowledge that yes, some of his work will live on, perhaps indefinitely, while so much of today's literary fiction will tumble into obscurity (once enough years have passed, the lit-crit establishment always forsakes its own in favor of those who left a real mark -- thus Dickens is enshrined in Norton). It doesn't seem so impossible that "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption" or "The Body" may reside in the Norton Anthology of American Literature a century from now. Literary genius or not, King has left his thumbprint -- a distinctly American thumbprint -- on the literary map. His acceptance into the ranks of the New Yorker, where you will never find Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton (though John Grisham may eventually earn his stars) ensures that thumbprint will be evident for years to come.

-- Jason Clarke

Read "Why Blacks Love Bill Clinton"

I had to laugh while reading Suzy Hansen's article. It was apparent that even after asking Mr. Wickham her questions, her Clinton hatred was still driving her. One more white person who just doesn't get it.

No other president has even attempted to have any kind of relationship with African-Americans. We were always the problem children, the ones to be pandered to only at election time and then ignored and pushed aside afterward. The Republican Party has never done anything for us and probably never will. Most of us are liberal and are appalled by the "compassionate conservative" lie. We saw the Republican Minstrel Show in Philadelphia last year and we understood fully what was going on. We also read the paper and see what Bush's budget cuts portend for us. I work for the Housing Authority here, and I know that the needs of the poor are the very last things on his agenda.

We know when somebody is being real with us, and believe me, Bill was real to us. So many times now, I hear people say to me, "Child, Bill Clinton was my president -- this thang in the White House now ain't nothin' to me." I laugh and agree. We know when we are being patronized and when someone really feels we have questions and concerns and tries to address them.

We don't expect perfection from people. We know better. We forgave him his transgressions. We remembered the times we have faltered and someone responded to us with love. We weren't mad at Bill for his failings. We still aren't. He didn't do anything a lot of us haven't done, and we aren't particularly hypocritical about it. We "feel" Bill. We know he "feels" us. We also remember how Bush I and Reagan -- who I am sure you idolize -- treated us. Most of us were a lot worse off because of the two of them. Bill was a breath of fresh air for us. Yes, we love him, and we understand that you don't understand. If you did, you wouldn't have written the really silly things you did.

-- Brenda Brody

Brava to Suzy Hansen. As an African-American and staunch Bill Clinton supporter, I agree 100 percent that President Clinton got it right where it counts: He brought the presidency to black America, where previous presidents forced us to constantly knock at the door and beg our way into the circles of power. Blacks did better economically under Clinton than at any other time. Clinton broke the mold on black appointments, and he integrated us in a very real sense, into the fabric of political America. Plus, we were smart enough to see through the brazen attempts of his enemies to bring down our president "by any means necessary." They tried, but we weren't having it.

I know I'm not alone in wishing the former president well, and in telling him to ignore the blowhard pundits and histrionic haters who are determined to blame him for everything from global terror to the common cold.

Mr. Clinton, you did good.

-- Joy Reid

Black Americans' infatuation with Bill Clinton should be chalked up as yet another group pathology (along with a 70 percent illegitimacy rate). And DeWayne Wickham is utterly grotesque in his sycophancy toward a man who has demonstrated ad nauseam that political expediency, and not principle, lies at the core of his character. Where is your innate B.S. detector, DeWayne? I doubt that Sister Souljah, the family of Rickie Rector and all other black casualties of Clinton's shameless political maneuvering for the white vote share in the collective hero-worship. Clinton's first priority has always been himself, and it seems that he was very shrewd in aligning himself so strongly with a group that would tolerate so much in return for so little.

-- Carl Beatty

Bill Clinton may not be the first black president, but he is the first president who has made me proud to be white. For that, as well as for eight of the best years of American life to date, I thank him.

-- Mary Kay Glazek

His appointments notwithstanding, Bill Clinton was a great president for knowing the words to "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and where to find the best soul food in D.C.? Gimme a break!

I wonder how the 750,000 (and counting) Americans who lost good manufacturing jobs because of NAFTA, or the millions of children whose lives have slid into despair thanks to welfare "reform," or the still-working and soon-to-be retired whose Social Security benefits are being threatened by privatization (which Bill Clinton championed) or the Chinese who are literally slaving away in some factory because of Permanent Most Favored Nation Trading Status (also bestowed by Bill) would rate the former president. Upset because the WTO overruled your city's law banning the environmental racism of dumping toxic waste in minority neighborhoods? Angry because your crack-smoking son got twice as much time in the big house as the coke-sniffing stock trader? Devastated because your Enron stock-based 401K evaporated and was allowed to do so because of the repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act? Thank Bill on all counts. But at least the former prez blew a mean sax.

LBJ was the consummate arm-twisting politician. But when he made it to the top, he didn't forget why he was there (and who put him there) and risked his and his party's political future by doing the right thing: The Civil Rights Acts of 1964, 1965 and 1968 are his legacy, not what style of underwear he preferred. He was also a real Democrat, not a "new" one.

Remember these two facts, if nothing else. In 1996, Bob Dole had no chance in hell of winning the White House before Clinton signed the Welfare Reform Act into law, much less after. Also, Harlem wasn't Bill Clinton's second choice for his offices, it was the only choice after Manhattan turned him down.

Yep, Bill Clinton was one great president, a Republican president, that is.

-- James Martinez

One word: Rwanda.

How much do Clinton's African-American fans care about the hundreds of thousands of Africans who died on his watch because he decided not to intervene?

Here in the black world outside the U.S., Rwanda is Clinton's legacy.

-- Cameron Bailey

Bill Clinton oversaw the largest rate of imprisonment of black men in the history of the world. His historically unprecedented escalation of the war against marijuana has criminalized black men at twice the rate of white men, for doing something Bill Clinton himself did and got away with when he was young.

I cannot for the life of me understand why there is any black loyalty to that man at all.

But maybe the war against pot is partly a war within the black community, a war of one generation against another. That would explain why black parents are so pleased with the man who was so determined to lock up their kids for doing something he was happy to get away with doing when he was young.

-- Patricia Schwarz

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