Look, is there any easier target than Stephen King, the self-proclaimed “Literary Big Mac” of American popular fiction?
As I read Dwight Allen's piece "My Stephen King Problem," my personal bat signal went off when I came across the reader comment that “this is the most rambling, dull, unfocused and self-absorbed piece I've ever read in Salon.” Hey, I thought, some guy is stealing my act! And then, suitably outraged, I read the article. Which brings up an entirely different kind of outrage.
How shall I put this diplomatically?
Allen’s article isn’t just a bile-drenched, meandering hatchet job, it is a hatchet job with a rusty, dull blade, devoid of insight into anything other than the insecurities of its writer.
It’s hard to understand why someone would want to write a 4,500-word essay about an author's life work and then boast about how unacquainted you are with the details of that work. It’s clearly the idea of Stephen King that gets under Allen’s skin. A writer who has never condescended to his audience, who literally lived in a garret (OK, trailer) suffering for his art, and then hit it big in ways that Allen can only dream. And now, and this is what really drives Allen crazy, King is being recognized for the vitality and enduring literary quality of his work, by fellow snobs who Allen thinks should know better. This is clearly not fair. It’s one thing to be a rich writer, but, an acclaimed one? Perish the thought.
When I think of vengeful wannabes like Allen, I recall that Matt Groening cartoon in his much-missed series Life in Hell. Here, an overeducated loser sits on a couch watching "Jeopardy." The answer is "Fred Flintstone's signature phrase" and the contestant answers something like "bibbedy-bobbity-boo." The guy on the couch says, "It's yabba-dabba-do! Those prizes are rightfully MINE!!!"
To Allen, Stephen King’s career is rightfully his. Who is Allen really thinking of when he states that “King appeals to the aggrieved adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adult?” An aggrieved, nerdy adult who writes 4,500 words on an author he claims is not worth reading? That career is rightfully mine, one imagines Allen sneering, when confronted with another stack of King paperbacks, somehow misshelved in the “literature” section of his favorite independent (never chain) bookstore.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a literary snob. If, in fact, you have that literary part of the equation covered. The problem with this assessment of Stephen King is that it adds nothing to the ongoing debate of the literary merits of his work, or, the enduring discussion of art versus commerce. This all comes down to, how can anyone this popular be any good? Clearly, Allen is outraged that King isn’t using the employees entrance into the Temple of High Art. He rails against such former cultural gatekeepers as the New Yorker for publishing King’s short stories (which Allen has never read), the New York Times Book Review, for ranking King’s last novel, “11-22-63” (which I suspect Allen never finished), among 2011's five best. Last, but very much not least, he calls out the National Book Foundation for having the gall to give King an award for literary excellence in 2003.
Over and over, Allen proudly proclaims how he has avoided reading any of King’s work. Thank God for that. For when he finally settles on his first actual target, King’s 1983 “Plymouth Fury From Hell” opus “Christine,” well, that’s where the old quote comes in. “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt." All that needs to be said here is that according to Dwight Allen, King is no John Updike. Thanks for pointing that out. That “Witches of Eastwick” movie had me all confused.
After muttering about those “steamer trunks” full of ill-gotten loot King has made (not earned), Allen then moves on to dismissing a random assortment of King’s books, chosen for no discernible reason than, well, whatever. Here, we are treated to an acid assessment of “Christine,” “Pet Sematary" and “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.” Oddly, this is where I almost had some sympathy with the reviewer. These three books are far from “A”-level King, and, if I were a cynic, I’d think that was why Allen chose those particular three to write about.
Throughout his screed, Allen seems resentful that King continually attempts to reach above his station, and stretch beyond the cage of his genre. But King has consistently fought against the boundaries of “horror” fiction and his publisher's expectations. The reason he still writes “Stephen King Books” is, well, he is Stephen King. It’s what he wants to write. And if “Stephen King” can’t write the books he wants, well, let me introduce you to a guy named “Richard Bachman.”
Finally, Allen does manage to tug at the root of his discontent when gets to King’s last novel, “11-22-63.” In his flick of the wrist dismissal, he writes that King “seems to suggest that people like him write with a lot of feeling, while so-called literary people don’t, and that it is the “what,” rather than the “how,” that matters in writing.” Uh, precisely. And to adopt the Dwight Allen school of literary criticism, I have (not proudly) not read any works from some of the names he has so carefully dropped, Roberto Bolaño, Denis Johnson or his “friend” Diana Abu-Jaber. But then, I don’t plan to review them, either. But now, my instinct says, “run.” I don’t need any “how-to” guides to abstract literary excellence. Sorry, worthy authors. You need to find some better fans, or, friend.
To be clear. This particular “aggrieved, nerdy adult” found “11-22-63” riveting from just about page one, let alone 300. It was precisely the slow accumulation of details and scenes that Allen decries that brought the book to that boiling level of hallucination that actually did somehow transport me, and apparently, those mooks at the New York Times Book Review, to Dallas in 1963. As a JFK assassination buff, and documentarian on same, I thought I had been there (I have) and seen that (I have). The best thing I can say about “11-22-63,” and Stephen King as a writer, is that if you want to find out why we nerdy fans fuss over him so much, you can begin here. And, at this juncture, here is where I can make a pretty good argument as to why Stephen King should continue to be allowed into the main entrance. And that is when I try to come up with King books or stories that Allen should have read, before trying to set this straw man on fire with his woefully wet matches.
Is it his magnum opus and fan favorite “The Stand”? “The Shining”? The novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”? “The Green Mile,” as fine a work of serialized fiction since the heyday of Charles Dickens? “Salem's Lot,” which may contain some of King’s finest descriptive writing? The chilling New Yorker short story “The Man in the Black Suit," which those other mooks behind the O. Henry Award said was the best story of 1996? The fact that countless readers will endlessly debate over their favorite “essential” King stories is obviously not proof that King is a literary giant. But it does make a claim that he is a great storyteller, with work worthy of more than a drive-by shooting by a lazy marksman.
Kurt Vonnegut, another easily dismissed (and name-checked by Allen) writer of genre fiction, once made an observation on a writer who, unlike Stephen King, never did quite get the respect he deserved from the literary gatekeepers. And that was the great John D. MacDonald, a writer whom King and other hugely popular writers have praised and referenced in countless ways. Vonnegut wrote that "to diggers a thousand years from now, the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen."
Stephen King has written a series of treasures that will endure the slings, arrows and rusty hatchets of envious writers whose faces are bitterly pressed against the glass of that Cultural Temple. You ain’t getting in, and Stephen King already has a far beyond-his-lifetime membership.