So, has Stephen King lost it?
February 19, 2002 9:33 AM   Subscribe

So, has Stephen King lost it? This guy seems to think so. Some would say he never had it. I think that while this guy makes a few valid points, he goes overboard, and brings up many things that just seem petty and silly, like he's trying to over-prove his theory, and increase the word count of the article. What do you think? (Side note: I wouldn't be surprised if "Richard Blow" becomes the name of a victim in a future King novel...).
posted by sassone (23 comments total)
His general thesis is sound, and I wouldn't be surprised if King more-or-less agreed. I don't dispute that many of the recent books pale in comparison to the vivid creativity of the "classics" (although I haven't read all of the newer books). I would make an exception for The Green Mile, which (imho) succeeded as a parable.

But sassone, you're right. I hadn't fully read your post until after I read the Salon article. While I was reading the article, I thought to myself: "I think this guy's just pissed that King wouldn't sign an autograph for his siblings."
posted by pardonyou? at 9:53 AM on February 19, 2002

Well...I read the article last night and the first thing that struck me about it was that Blow claims to have been reading King's novels for 4 decades. If you count a decade as counting from 1971-1980, 1981-1990, 1991-2000, 2001-now, sure, that's 2 decades. but King's first novel, Carrie, was published in 1974, 27 (or 28 depending on exact publication date) years ago--less than three decades if you take a decade to mean a group of ten years, irrespective of starting date. To claim 4 decades of King novel-reading is misleading at best.

He later makes the point that King needed to stop writing 20 years ago, but then goes on to praise at least one book (It) that was written after 1982.

Blow has a definite axe to grind here, and he goes at it with much gusto. I can agree with his point that King's been recycling plots for years, but the deliberate exaggerations blow his credibility out of the water. At least it does for me. And what cracks me up is that King has never claimed to be writing great literature--haven't read his recent book on writing, so maybe that's changed--but you don't see anyone piling on Johanna Lindsay or Danielle Steele in such a hyperbolic fashion in such a public forum.
posted by eilatan at 10:02 AM on February 19, 2002

like he's trying to over-prove his theory, and increase the word count of the article

A lot of the stuff on Salon reads like bad undergrad theses. Their opinion pieces all sound like the author was given a POV and a word count, and told to run with it.
posted by todds at 10:13 AM on February 19, 2002

posted by nagchampa at 10:15 AM on February 19, 2002

Well, I gave up on Big Steve a long time ago; it seemed that somewhere around It, he was unable to keep every novel from becoming a ludicrously cosmic battle of Good v. Evil. I liked him better when things were simple: a haunted hotel, a psychic guy, a telekinetic girl. Instead, everything became Wise Good Turtles Carrying the Universe, Satan Founds A Curiosity Shoppe, and Writer's Doppelganger Sparks Holy War.

That said, here's a piece of weirdness from the article:

The simple savior is a recurring and weary trope in King's fiction. Usually, however -- and somewhat disturbingly -- the saintly simpletons are black characters, pretty much the only black characters in King, such as Doc, the cook in "The Shining," Speedy in "The Talisman" and Mother Abigail Freemantle, the Christ-like old woman in "The Stand."

What? None of his examples are "simpletons."
posted by Skot at 10:20 AM on February 19, 2002

eilatan: I think what Blow meant was that he's been reading King "in" four decades, meaning the 70s being one, 80s two, 90s three, and now the 00s four.

pardonyou: Yeah, I agree, I thought that was a silly passage too. I mean, what was he trying to prove here, that King didn't want to bow down to his fans while he was enjoying dinner? That's really petty. I'm sure King has been more than cool to his many fans over the years, and just because he didn't want to take time to sign an autograph while eating, even if he was rather blunt in his "no," doesn't make him ungrateful or changed or whatever point he was trying to make. King is arguably the most famous living author, and I'm sure he's had many odd run-ins with fans or fans mailing him odd things (and manuscripts to critique - why does he dump on King because he wants to be careful legally, like any other writer or publisher?) that he's earned a little privacy.

But if that article was good for something, it's this: it's inspired the instantly classic phrase, "Gooooooooo Shit Weasals!" Heh...
posted by sassone at 10:33 AM on February 19, 2002

With the exception of Dreamcatcher & Black House, which do seem pretty weak, I find that King's works from the 2nd half of his career are much more original (and on average better written) than his early works. (I liked them, but vampires, werewolves & haunted houses are pretty standard fare.) Look at Gerald's Game, for example - name me another work with that storyline by any author. Ditto for The Langoliers. Like him or not, he's expanded his range quite a bit over the years.
posted by tdismukes at 10:38 AM on February 19, 2002

For anyone who missed it, here's the MeFi thread from a couple of weeks ago responding to Steven King's original threat of retirement.
posted by Sapphireblue at 10:43 AM on February 19, 2002

While I don't disagree that it may be time for King to hang up his pen, I don't think much of Blow's article. He conveniently ignores the fact that King has *always* written to a formula, and that this has little or no bearing on whether a given book of his is any good or not. And Blow also ignores the fact that King has always recycled characters (not just overtly, as in the Castle Rock books, but covertly: most of his characters have things in common with other characters in other books), and this, too, has no bearing on the quality of a given book.

I think Blow is upset because he, personally, preferred King's older work to his newer. I don't think that his older work is universally better than his newer work by any means - I find his very early work extremely dated when I read it now, "'Salem's Lot" just doesn't do it for me these days, and I remember finding it terrifying when I first read it. I find much of his newer work (especially if we're including the 80's in "newer") far more complex and better-written, and far less homogeneous than his earlier work (as tdismukes mentions on preview).

And some of the books Blow slags, like "Gerald's Game" and "Misery", are books which are very un-King-like (with regard to "standard King") in many respects. I get the impression that Blow wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants new and different, but when he gets it he doesn't like it.

I agree with him about King's annoying habit of making people who are in some way disabled specially talented, and having African-American characters only appear when they're there to be saintly. I've always hated this about his writing. I also hate that he resorts to boring and standard ways of getting certain points across ("The Green Mile" drove me crazy with John Coffey and the beating me over the head with how awful the death penalty is...I *know* already, you don't have to show me a predictably horrible death telegraphed from ten miles away to convince me).

And his complaints about King's refusal to read manuscripts on his website are just dopey, as Blow points out himself when he mentions how it would be so easy for a fan to claim King stole his idea (among other good reasons for him not to, like just not wanting to). The vast majority of *publishers* won't read unsolicited manuscripts, why should Stephen King? I also think mentioning the alleged meeting between his siblings and King was a mistake.
posted by biscotti at 10:54 AM on February 19, 2002

eilatan: you beat me to the punch. I always look and King's career and think "I've been alive two years longer than he's been publishing." Suddenly I felt 40.

I gave up on King way back in TommyKnocker-ville. He just lost me there. While I agree that his writing is formulaic (most of his direct influences become obvious if you've ever read Danse Macabre), he pretty much invented the formula. Robert Ludlum basically wrote the same book his entire life and still made for and entertaining read. Why I gave up on with King was not the canned plots or the identical characters, but that they just didn't scare me anymore. The aforementioned Tommyknockers made me laugh. So did Insomnia and the plot crossing Regulators and Desperation. I mean, c'mon, little dudes that kill you while you sleep or the Power Rangers running around town killing people?! Gooooooofy.
posted by eyeballkid at 11:49 AM on February 19, 2002

Er, sassone? I did make that point in my post (with, I see, an appalling typo; should have been a 4, not a 2). I just find the ambiguity of his phrasing misleading. He could have said "I've been reading King's novels for nearly 30 years" and still established his status as a long-time reader of King's work.

I am a person who values precision in writing (and I do try to be as precise as possible; I don't always succeed, but I also don't get paid to write articles for publication ;-) ) and that one sentence in the article really popped out at me and affected my attitude toward the rest of the article.

I have to agree with the others who have commented that it was a mistake for Blow to mention the alleged meeting between his siblings and King. Makes him look even more petty than he already appeared to be.
posted by eilatan at 11:49 AM on February 19, 2002

now steve can say 'blow me, salon!'
posted by quonsar at 11:57 AM on February 19, 2002

eilatan: didn't mean anything by it (at all). Just thought I'd rephrase what I pretty thought you were trying to say. Your "2" instead of a "4" confused me, I guess.

Blow's sentence could have been phrased a lot better. I'm sure King himself would take the sentence apart, like he does in "On Writing." Sometimes people try to sound more intellectual (or something) when they write, so instead of Blow writing "I've been reading King for almost 30 years," he phrased it the way he did. And it's off-putting.

And, yeah, he could have had some sort of OK article if he stuck with Kings literary merits. Instead, he gets personal and petty with that "he won't sign my sister's autograph" nonsense.
posted by sassone at 12:16 PM on February 19, 2002

It's interesting that nobody (including the author of the Salon article) seems to have mentioned King's "Dark Tower" novels, the fifth of which is coming out next year. I think they're brilliant, and lots of King's recent work has very interesting tie-ins to the world of Roland of Gilead. If any work of King's ever does end up getting studied as literature, I suspect it'd be this work as a whole.
posted by chuq at 12:19 PM on February 19, 2002

chuq - The Dark Tower series is probably King's best work, but since he started it in college & still hasn't finished, it's hard to say how it fits into the question of whether his newer or older work is more original.
posted by tdismukes at 12:28 PM on February 19, 2002


sorry, folks, but i just can't git enough of them shit-weasels.

posted by nagchampa at 12:31 PM on February 19, 2002

Oooh! Oooh! Go back to the article, and the sentence that said the author had been reading King for four decades has been changed to read three decades. So maybe it was a mistake. But don't they have copy editors at Salon? Or can't they afford them anymore?

(I did write about the article last night, for what it's worth--self link to prove I'm not a total crackhead.)
posted by eilatan at 1:50 PM on February 19, 2002



posted by nagchampa at 2:06 PM on February 19, 2002

"I gave up on King way back in TommyKnocker-ville."

Ditto, good note.

I do think that King has some problems creating and empathising with characters that aren't, well, like him. For example women and people of other cultures/religions/ethnic groups. I think he comes across as a kind person, and he's certainly not an orphan there, but these problems exist despite that and I'm not going to pretend that they don't.

King's writing is often poor except for some solid work in patches and some sustained good writing in novellas and short stories. He does however have an incredible imagination and writes the kind of book which will keep you awake on a trans-Atlantic flight till you reach the final page and race to pick up another one of his books in the next transit lounge. Having said this it's just plain stupid to have a go at him because he doesn't wish to sign autographs or read the thousands of manuscripts people send him. He writes good books, he never said he was going to make himself available to fans 24/7. He never said he wasn't human, that he didn't get grouchy, or have bad days.

I think that comments like this -

"Unless you're in the Sex Pistols, showing contempt for your fans is never good marketing strategy"

....underestimate the sheer extent and magnitude of King's fame.

"Smith resembled one of Stephen King's deranged characters. Or one of his fans. Increasingly, they're the same thing."

It's not ok for Kind to be rude to his fans, but Blow can be rude to King's fans with impunity!

I agree with Blow that King hasn't written something that can really be compared to his past works for a while. But this is where our opinions diverge. By large, I think the article is a fairly shallow "kick him while he's down" type of work. I can perfectly understand why King doesn't like signing autographs, and it's kind of rude, imho, to approach famous people in restaurants. You should leave them be to enjoy their meal. I'm sure Martha Stewart would agree with me on this...

"In both "Dreamcatcher" and "Black House," he resorts to cheap vulgarity and violence far more repulsive and over-the-top than anything in his best books"

Ok, I haven't read those books, so perhaps that's a fair call.

"Not knowing what else to do but write, and happy to keep the money pipeline open"

I think that King is long past the stage where he wrote for money.

Regarding the last thread on King, I think he was fairly clear when choosing his words. He didn't say he wasn't going to write, he said he wasn't going to write any more books. I don't think he could stop writing if he tried, it's such a large part of his identity, and I think he will continue to write stuff for TV and the Movies, under different names, or simply not publish what he has written until after his death.

I think that some of the problems with his later works have been due to a lack of editorial control and this is not uncommon among writers who have achieved even a moderate level of fame. Some editors are intimidated by their success, and either consciously or subconsciously, out of a desire not to lose a client, are careful to pass in the manuscript more or less as it was originally written.
posted by lucien at 2:11 PM on February 19, 2002

And if the person Blow's siblings accosted in the restaurant *wasn't* Stephen King...? What was he supposed to do, lie to them and say, "Why, yes I am? Would you like my autograph?" Having the same *name* as Stephen King is an out-right hazard these days---Oh, the horror! It can't be easy for a guy who bears a passing resemblance to The Famous Author, either.

I know this sort of thing happens because it's happened to me, more than once. Usually, I say, "No, sorry, I'm NOT Janet Morris---but you could head over to the Baen table and ask there if she's around...." If this happened too often, I'd probably stop saying "No, sorry," and just say, "No."
posted by realjanetkagan at 2:15 PM on February 19, 2002

This just reads like kicking a man when he's down. King's already admitted it's time to put down the keyboard and back away from the monitor. He's through writing and is planning retirement. Why does Salon bother to attack him now? Aren't there other authors out there who are still writing who really should know when to stop?
posted by ZachsMind at 2:21 PM on February 19, 2002

The whole rant is completely beside the point. It's like trying to say that Judith Krantz writes subliterate crap: of course she does, but that doesn't stop squillions of housewives from snapping up her drivel. Krantz (and King) can laugh all the way to the bank.

King is no stylist, but he'd be the first to admit it -- he even said somewhere (I forget where exactly) that his efforts are the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries. One thing I've always liked about King is that he doesn't put on airs.

I do lament his decision to pull a Faulkner and tie everything to his own "universe" -- I like the Dark Tower series a lot, but it gets tiring when every book he writes ties into the mythos somehow (and in inscrutable ways).

Oh, and Dreamcatcher sucked the big hairy one, hilarious shit-weasels notwithstanding. Maybe he was still under the influence of the painkillers when he wrote it, but he must have been lucid when he let it go to publishing. He should have burned it.
posted by mrmanley at 2:22 PM on February 19, 2002

Oh, and Dreamcatcher sucked the big hairy one

Yeah? Then Black House sucked Dreamcatcher crap.

Having said that and what I said before, I agree with Zach (god, shoot me) about kicking a man while he's down. King has admitted most of the things we're accusing him of. I've never seen him as a top writer, just a novelist to pass the time between better books.
posted by eyeballkid at 3:02 PM on February 19, 2002

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