While scrolling through Facebook this morning, I saw a link to a column by Dwight Allen called “My Stephen King Problem: A Snob’s Notes.” I’ll admit it: I was intrigued. It’s not too often you see people in the literati crowd take on the King anymore. It’s kind of like arguing about hurricanes. Some people see the impending storm as a reason to party while others just want to get out of Dodge or at least batten down the hatches and ride it out. But the storm itself is really just too big a phenomenon to worry about saying whether it’s good or bad. It’s there. If you live in Phoenix, it doesn’t bother you much. If you’re along the Gulf coast, you may have a hurricane party or have to rebuild. Stephen King has become such a force in writing world that you don’t think much about it until one of his books affects you personally (either because you liked the story or because someone dropped The Stand in hardback version on your head).
So this guy says he’s a literary snob and didn’t read any King for 25 years. He’d even go out of his way to avoid publications like The New Yorker if it happened to have something by King soiling its pages. But, finally, because a friend had recommended it, he decided to hold his nose and read a few: Christine, Pet Sematary, 11/22/63 and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. He said King’s work was ultimately “workmanlike” but not particularly exciting or original — and it was way too long. Allen complained frequently about King’s unnecessary wordiness — long-winded passages that didn’t say much of anything.
Which struck me as funny, given that the column weighed in at 4,600 words. That’s long by any stretch. For a newspaper column, it would be about 10 times too long. Even for a magazine, this piece is pushing it. And for an online column — its actual home — it should be maybe a quarter of the length. And that’s just for readability. Few people are willing to put that kind of time into reading something like this on a computer screen. There’s no reason for this particular piece to be this long. It’s full of little parenthetical asides that have little if any relevance to the topic at hand. It rambles. The piece is basically a wandering rant. He makes some interesting points, but they’re buried under a slag heap of vitriol.
The ending pretty much says it all:
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.
Honestly, that’s not a bad view if you happen to not like genre work. I think Allen’s a bit misguided, but that’s his prerogative. It’s his snobbish attitude, not just to King’s writing, but to the people who love his work:
I did feel, however, that I demanded something different (something more?) from a novel than I guessed most of the readers of Stephen King did. (Not that this made me morally superior, just more demanding, a high-maintenance reader.)
I’m not Stephen King’s biggest fan. At least, not his later works. His earlier stuff, such as The Shining and The Stand, and his short stories are wonderful. Some of his later work isn’t as good. But with something like 50 books under his belt, he’s going to have some sinkers. I prefer the likes of C.S. Friedman, Clive Barker, Matt Hults, Tad Williams, Robert Jordan, Eric S. Brown and Michael West. But, unlike Allen, I’m not going to knock anyone who likes to read everything King puts out. I’m glad they’re reading at all.
Now don’t get me wrong. As an English teacher, I deplore the general lack of appreciation for literature we see today. I’m enthralled by Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare, the Romantic poets, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe and Martin Cruz Smith. But you know what? I’d never have an appreciation this kind of literature if not for Stephen King.
I started reading at a young age because I saw my mother reading. It varied greatly: Romance novels, The Deathgate Cycle, Stephen King, etc. I decided to pick up Pet Sematary while in middle school. Scared the pants off me. I also wound up reading things like 1984 and Animal Farm that same year. And I kept on reading, King. Tolkien. C.S. Lewis. Jordan. And on and on.
As a reporter, one year I got to cover Rock and Read in Rockwall County. This was a fundraiser for a literacy program where someone would sit in a rocking chair at various places in the county and read. I went from place to place, talking to different participants. One question I always asked: What are you reading? Nearly every one of them got a little embarrassed and replied beginning with “Oh, it’s just…” They seemed to think they should be reading Plato or Vonnegut at all times.
What I told them, I say to you: Be glad you’re reading something. I don’t care if it’s the Rambler essays or a series of pamphlets on shaving weasels. Just read it.