READING DWIGHT ALLEN'S “My Stephen King Problem: A Snob’s Notes” was like wandering through that part of the mental institution where the inmates are wearing stethoscopes and calling themselves doctors. Smart readers, unite! Let us decry the naked Emperor called Stephen King, and restore our soiled integrity! Uh, okay. After that, can we all play Thundercats?
On a more serious note, I can understand Allen’s frustration. Literature no longer wields the same cultural currency it did fifty years ago. We’re not all talking about the latest Wharton, Updike, or Carver. The Pulitzer in fiction wasn’t even awarded this year (see Laura Miller’s explanation). As corporations bloat into obese, self-perpetuating monsters, our society has fractured into thousands of small, like-minded bubbles. We don’t consume art; we produce text messages. Everybody’s a star! Reality television has-beens, unite!
I think Allen blames King for what he represents: the blockbuster. Unlike most blockbuster authors (Patterson, Meyer), King commands esteem from the kinds of people who hand out awards. When most new writers can’t get a book published unless they have an agent in New York, and they can’t get an agent in New York unless their best friend is dating someone who once went to school with Nicole Aragi, that’s demoralizing. There’s only so much poop humor in "Dreamcatcher" that any starving artist can take.
Maybe society is to blame. You can earn an easy million on Wall Street, while your first published novel probably won’t pay a month’s Manhattan rent. But why attack Stephen King? Why not go after the majority, who don’t read at all? Then again, what’s with the picking? How does that help?
It’s a dead debate. Allen’s oppositions — workmanlike/artistic; literary/genre; educated/blue collar; New Yorker reader from Louisville/dumb fuck from Bangor — are contrived. They distract us from real issues by splitting groups that aren’t actually different, or at least not opposites. In other words, Margaret Atwood and George Orwell would have made a fantastic couple. Who knows, maybe Ronald Reagan and Hillary Clinton too.
And on to Stephen King, who deserves fairer treatment. It’s no secret that even the best of King’s novels could use an editor. Much of his fiction is long-winded and rife with sentimentality. As I’m reading him, I’m sometimes embarrassed for him. I mean, how about that ending to "It" where the hero saves his wife from catatonia by taking her on a magic bike ride? If you only saw the movie "The Shining," you probably don’t know that Jack Torrance is prone to cheesy, dry-drunk weeping about the perfection of his only son Danny. King’s epic "The Stand" ends with God’s Hand coming down from heaven and setting off a nuclear weapon, killing all the bad guys. How silly, right? No wonder, as Allen says, “King appeals to the aggrieved adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adult, who believes that people can be divided into bad and good.”
Then why is King so popular? Is it, as Allen suggests, that we’re all just lemmings, following a forty-year trend? It’s not that crazy a suggestion. Take any book King’s written since he started publishing in 1974. It’s never the best book of the year, or even the best in its genre. But all his novels, even the stinkers, have resonance. By this I mean, his fiction isn’t just reflective of the current culture, it casts judgment. Innocent Carrie White wakes up with her period and telekinesis at the height of the women’s movement. No wonder everybody craps on her, and no wonder we’re delighted that she slaughters them all. In Cujo, the materialism of the 1980s American family tears itself apart from the inside, as represented by the family dog gone mad.
King marries this resonance with the same question that Dickens first addressed in "David Copperfield": “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Only in a King book, it’s put like this: “Are you going to man/woman up, and kill some monsters, or are you yellow?” In some King novels, the stakes are the soul of the individual — will Johnny assassinate the senator to save the world’s future ("The Dead Zone")? In others, it’s the family unit: Will Wendy take responsibility, punch Jack in the face with a cleaver, and save her son ("The Shining")? In others ("The Stand," "The Gunslinger" series, "Running Man"), he asks, Will we be the heroes of our societies, and start steering this ship in the right direction? Do we have the courage to save the world?
We live in cynical times. It’s cool to pretend that these questions are stupid, irrelevant — dishonest reductions of issues much more complex. As Allen says, “This is absurd — as if ‘life’ consisted of production values or hokey premises or unearned, happy endings.” In other words, King’s treatment of this subject is schlock. But really, aren’t these questions worth asking? Aren’t they the only questions worth asking?
No one except King challenges us so relentlessly, to be brave. To kill our monsters. That’s because he’s a believer — to him, it’s not schlock. And because he believes his own horseshit, we swallow it too. When we read his fiction, we think: I want to go kiss my spouse, hold my kids, thank God they’re healthy. I want to fix the things that are broken.
King’s impact isn’t just on the baby boomers either. I was born the year Carrie was published. People younger than me think of King as a peer. People twice my age do too. Why? Because he’s still resonant. Because he’s addressing our current culture, even as he forces it to examine the same questions of social and individual bravery. When I squirm with embarrassment over King’s cheesy afterwords, certain I’m too cool to be the Constant Reader he’s referring to, I’m doing it because there’s a friction happening. It’s in this friction where King’s magic lives. I know his sentimentality is bullshit — we can’t save the world. Love doesn’t conquer all. Characters who say just the right thing at just the right time don’t exist. We can’t fight monsters with inhalers and silver dollars and win, goddammit! So I squirm, because even as my intellect rebels, a part of me believes. He got me.
A final note on King. We never forget his characters. They live, they breathe. Their thoughts are disturbingly familiar, especially the dark ones. They do the things we want to do, or they fail in ways we’ve failed and wish we hadn’t. At a time when reality television passes for entertainment, and big-butted rich girls who get married for seventy-two days are role models, it’s so nice to visit King’s world, where normal people get hosed, then try to do the right thing, or at least think about doing it. Where else should we look for our heroes, if not in fiction? Where are they right now? Silent, perhaps. Not as audacious as we’d hoped. King tells us we need to invent those heroes. We need to be them.
Plenty of writers write better (Nabokov, Egan) or offer greater inspiration (Atwood, Marquez). But do they consistently resonate? Do the best of their stories sing with such gorgeous prose as to make a reader blush with joy (see “The Little Sisters of Eluria” in "Everything’s Eventual" or the plague interludes in "The Stand")? Take any Pulitzer winner. Pick through their entire corpus. You’ll find they’ve got a lot of clunkers, just like King. But few have amassed a forty-year body of work.
Fewer still have game. Pick up “Herman Wouk is Still Alive” in the Atlantic Monthly. The story is about two single mothers who’ve won a small amount of money in the lottery and decide to go on a road trip. We learn about their abusive childhoods, why they can’t make ends meet, how their dreams match up to the crappy lives they’re now living. We totally understand why they’re getting drunk while driving, and even why they hit their kids. But we judge them. They’re not us, after all. We’ll never be like them, though it’s fascinating to ride the hell-on-earth tour bus.
The moms’ story is interspersed with scenes featuring a couple of baby-boomer artists who meet at a highway roadside. We identify with them because they’re smart and funny and neurotic. They’d rescue a baby from a burning building, but they’d be pretty pissed off if a waiter forgot to put their balsamic dressing on the side. Like Herman Wouk, they’re old and too tired to have sex. They think the food at the faculty party they’re about to attend will be mediocre, and they’re sad that they turned out mediocre too. But there’s still time, right? Maybe they’ll get that Pulitzer yet. So they’re sitting there, preparing to go talk to the next generation about art, when our two single moms and their car full of kids crash onto the roadside. The kids and single moms die. Heads literally roll. The old farts cry and are sad. It’s utterly weird and believable. The end.
What’s this story about? It’s about us, as a culture, letting our young and best die while we sit idly by debating high art. It’s a screw you to the Altantic readers, The New Yorker readers, the people who lost sight of the dream, in the only language they might possibly understand, from the only venue they’re going to read. It’s about soul. Our American soul, perfectly expressed and challenged and loved by the American icon that is Stephen King.