(In two parts, for those of you who don’t have all day.)
Confession: I have been a HUGE fan of Stephen King’s work for many years.
Confession: I read my first and only Stephen King novel about six months ago.
Why yes, I’d be happy to explain.
For a long time, there were only three genres of fiction that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. 1. Science Fiction, for no good reason (and, as we’ve already seen, I’ve overcome that aversion.) 2. “Bodice Rippers,” as I believe they’re called – I read one once, just to see, and it was not a successful experiment. And 3. Horror, because I am too easily scared, and I don’t like gore.
Like everyone else on Planet Earth, I was well aware of Stephen King, and had actually enjoyed the movie treatments of some of his famous novels (although I had to close my eyes in parts.) I knew he was one of the best-selling fiction writers of all time, with upwards of 350 million books sold. I also knew he had written a few non-horror novels – but I wasn’t interested in reading those. If I couldn’t sample what he obviously did best, then I didn’t want to sample him at all.
Then, in 2000, King went and wrote a little something that he called On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
When On Writing was published, book critics, most of whom had long treated King’s work with either disdain or indifference, sort of collectively shuffled their feet. Because the book was…um…really good. As in, people were saying it was the best book on writing since The Elements of Style. Which was a bit outrageous.
And also, true.
The simple fact is, Stephen King has managed to sell several hundred million books, in a niche genre that is not even liked by anyone I know, because the man knows how to tell a freaking story (and I would use stronger language, but there are children around) better than just about anyone. This was evident to me before I had read a single word of his fiction. This was evident when I read his amazing memoir/guidebook.
On Writing contains a short (less than 100 pages) account of King’s childhood and early writing history. He then tells you everything he knows about writing. (In a postscript, he also writes about the 1999 accident that took place while he was writing this book, in which he was nearly killed by a runaway van while he was walking near his home.)
King touches on philosophical advice, as when he describes how he eventually traded in the massive writing desk he’d always dreamed of for a smaller one, so his kids would have space to come hang out in his office. He writes:
It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.
And King packs his book with practical advice, much of it echoing The Elements of Style (which he references.) He hates adverbs. He doesn’t believe in dressing up your vocabulary, or lecturing while writing, or forcing your characters to do things your way. He does believe in trimming the fat from your writing; if a stretch of narrative does not move the story along, no matter how beautiful it is – it must go. He hammers this point home wonderfully, as here:
It’s also important to remember it’s not about the setting, anyway – it’s about the story, and it’s always about the story. It will not behoove me (or you) to wander off into thickets of description just because it would be easy to do so.
On Writing has an easy, conversational tone to it that makes it sound like you’re talking to your Uncle Stevie (as King often refers to himself.) DO NOT BE FOOLED. Producing his kind of writing is in no way easy. It is one of the hardest things in the world to get right – and the only reason King can do it, as he oh so casually relates in the book, is that he has written his fingers to the bone since he was a child. He wrote his way through grade school, and high school, and college; he wrote in the laundry room of a double-wide, far into the night, every night; he wrote through addictions that were so bad, he can barely remember writing some of his books; he wrote his way back from the brink of death, in a variety of ways; he wrote when no one would pay him for it and when his first four completely-finished novels all went into the permanent reject heap. He writes because (I suspect) for him, to stop writing would be to stop breathing. King has natural talent, absolutely. But he has also worked at his profession as hard as anyone ever has. He has paid his dues, and then some.
Check out the list of books and stories he has published, from his web page (and then come back.) When I scrolled through this list, I got the strong urge to giggle, because the quantity of work he’s produced is insane. And bear in mind, he was writing long, long before he was ever published.
Anyway, by halfway through On Writing, I was a die-hard Stephen King fan.
Then in 2007, King was chosen as the guest editor for that year’s Best American Short Stories compilation. (This is a marvelous series in which every year, a different distinguished author selects the 20 or so best short stories from the most prestigious American magazines, and they are re-printed in a paperback book.) I bought the book and eagerly read Stephen’s choices, and I loved every one them, even though they all bore a slightly macabre King stamp. My opinion was cemented – Stephen King simply knows great writing. After that, I found and purchased another of his books on writing that my brother had told me about, the little known, out-of-print Secret Windows, which was published in 2000 as a Book-of-the-Month Club collection of essays, interviews, and articles.
By this point, there was no way I could continue to avoid King’s fiction. I had to read one of his novels. And I wanted it to be one of his best.
In late 2009, King published the 1074-page Under the Dome. I have always found it hard to resist the siren song of a Really Big Book, and I sensed that this novel would be my first foray into King fiction territory. The New York Times book review clinched it – the review begins with these words: “Under the Dome gravely threatens Stephen King’s status as a mere chart-busting pop cultural phenomenon. It has the scope and flavor of literary Americana, even if Mr. King’s particular patch of American turf is located smack in the middle of the Twilight Zone.”
A few months later, I checked out Under the Dome from my local library. Our state was having a streak of beautiful, warm weather last Spring, and in the afternoons, while my boys napped, I sat in the sun and read King’s book. And could not put it down.
King would probably be the first person to tell you that he is not the greatest writer alive. But he is far and away the best I’ve ever read at one thing: keeping the reader turning the pages. Under the Dome is, as I’ve mentioned, 1074 pages long – and if there was a dull page in that book, I never found it. I cannot tell you how much that blows my mind. It should be impossible to write 1000+ consecutive pages, and not get mired down in a bit of rambling. But I did not run across a single page where I thought, Oh, this would be a good place to take a break and go make myself a turkey sandwich, or put the clothes in the dryer.
That, my friends, is genius. And that is someone who has faithfully toiled away at his craft for untold hours, spanning untold years. Of course, one could credibly argue that King has an advantage over most writers, in that he deals with the supernatural. Since anything can (and does) happen to his characters, there is always some fantastic or unbelievable event going on, which creates tension and keeps the story moving forward briskly. But 1000 pages? In which the story never flags? That is the product of remarkable self-editing, and an incredibly finely-tuned ear.
(I won’t explain the plot of Under the Dome. If you’re not going to read the book, the plot doesn’t matter. If you can stomach some gore, then read the book – but I must mention: King’s writing is NOT for the faint of heart. Evidently, there is no subject that he considers taboo, and I mean NO subject. You have been warned.)
As much as I enjoyed that novel, I don’t plan to read any more King fiction. I do better when I don’t fill my head with dark and scary stuff. But I will go on being a big fan, from afar. If I ever publish a book (could happen), and Stephen King were to read it (never gonna happen), his approval would mean more to me than just about anyone else’s. Because he knows, better than anyone, what makes a great story.
Long live (and write) the King.