Saturday, October 23, 2010

Wisdom from Stephen King

I've often opined that Stephen King is capable of writing The Great American Novel, if he could just let go of the trappings of what he writes that sells. Each of his novels starts out with descriptions and actions taking place in Small Town America, and they are incredibly convincing and well-done. King has a good ear for dialogue, for the way people naturally talk and act in relationship. Then the disruption of normality happens, things turn bizarre, and the rest of each book is about what ordinary people do in response to extraordinary circumstances. He does this well; not all of his novels are great, but those that are stand out as among the best of the genre. Yet if King were to focus on his writing on small-town life, he could indeed write The Great American Novel. In some ways, Stand By Me does indeed approach that.

The thing is, King is a writer who likes to write. He defends popular fiction not only because it needs defending but because he likes it. His tastes are quite eclectic and open-ended. Which I would argue they ought to be, for any writer, who writes anywhere in any style about anything.

Last year I read through King's book On Writing and was very impressed. He revealed a great deal about his own life in that book, which is part book-about-writing and part memoir. I read a lot of books that writers write about writing—except for "How To" manuals which are all alike after you've read five of them—and I have a small library on creativity, books-on-books, and collections of essays written by writers about writing. King's On Writing is actually one of the most memorable, most lively, and most engaging of the lot. I recommend it.

In browsing through vast online archive of The Paris Review interviews, I was reading through King's interview when the following exchange caught my attention. I think there's a lot of wisdom revealed in this exchange, and King puts his finger precisely on both the literary establishment's tendency to dismiss "genre" fiction and why that's problematic. This resonates directly with what I've said before about genre writing, about writers like raymond Chandler who I'd put up there with the best writers of the 20th C., and about the problematic attitude that the literary gatekeepers take towards everything they disapprove of.

When you accepted the National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, you gave a speech defending popular fiction, and you listed a number of authors who you felt were underappreciated by the literary establishment. Then Shirley Hazzard, that year’s award winner in fiction, got on stage and dismissed your argument pretty flatly.

What Shirley Hazzard said was, I don’t think we need a reading list from you. If I had a chance to say anything in rebuttal, I would have said, With all due respect, we do. I think that Shirley, in a way, has proven my point. The keepers of the idea of serious literature have a short list of authors who are going to be allowed inside, and too often that list is drawn from people who know people, who go to certain schools, who come up through certain channels of literature. And that’s a very bad idea—it’s constraining for the growth of literature. This is a critical time for American letters because it’s under attack from so many other media: TV, movies, the Internet, and all the different ways we have of getting nonprint input to feed the imagination. Books, that old way of transmitting stories, are under attack. So when someone like Shirley Hazzard says, I don’t need a reading list, the door slams shut on writers like George Pelecanos or Dennis Lehane. And when that happens, when those people are left out in the cold, you are losing a whole area of imagination. Those people—and I’m not talking about James Patterson, we understand that—are doing important work.

So I’d say, yes, Shirley Hazzard does need a reading list. And the other thing Shirley Hazzard needs is for someone to say to her, Get busy. You have a short life span. You need to stop this crap about sitting there and talking about what we do, and actually do it. Because God gave you some talent, but he also gave you a certain number of years.

And one other thing. When you shut the door to serious popular fiction, you shut another door on people who are considered serious novelists. You say to them, You write popular, accessible fiction at your peril. So there aren’t many writers who would take the chance that Philip Roth did when he wrote The Plot Against America. It was a risk for him to write that book because it’s an accessible novel that can be read as entertainment. It is involving on a narrative level. That’s a different book from Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire—which, by the way, is a damn good book. But it’s not the same thing at all.

Is there really much of a difference, then, between serious popular fiction and literary fiction?

The real breaking point comes when you ask whether a book engages you on an emotional level. And once those levers start to get pushed, many of the serious critics start to shake their heads and say, No. To me, it all goes back to this idea held by a lot of people who analyze literature for a living, who say, If we let the rabble in, then they’ll see that anybody can do this, that it’s accessible to anyone. And then what are we doing here?

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I actually don’t think I’ve read anything by King. I’ve seen quite a few of film adaptations very few of which have done anything to encourage me to break my duck. I have heard that he writes better books than his films would lead you to believe (especially those where he’s donned the director’s cap himself) but none have crossed my path when I was feeling charitable enough to give him a go. I read reviews of all his books when they come out and I have to say the books that might have stood a chance are the ones that will probably never be filmed. I’ve also heard very good things about On Writing and I do imagine that’ll be the first thing by him I’ll ever read.

The snippet of interview was interesting. What I think is more significant is that The Paris Review chose to interview him in the first place. It’s certainly a pat on the back. How he managed to keep his cool when Shirley Hazzard said what she did is beyond me. Mind you how she could be so offensive to his face is also beyond me.

2:21 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hazzard is shielded, like so many in the literary world, by the idea that it's not offensive if you're just giving a paper, or expressing a point of view. She sort of does prove King's point: she's so disconnected from reality up there in the stratosphere of High Art Literary Fiction that she doesn't even realize that she's being rude.

She's actually rather typical. A lot of Literary Critics suffer from this.

Or maybe Hazzard is just a rude person. Those certainly abound in English departments.

One reason it's fun to read Umberto Eco's essays is that he does NOT suffer from this bias. He looks at everything, and he enjoys everything. That's infectious; his enthusiasms can become your own.

Yet I agree that just being interviewed by this magazine subverts a lot of the High Art Literary bias against King, and his compatriots. Which is why his comments seemed so strong here, to me. I think he understood he was being given a bully pulpit, and he used it well.

11:05 AM  

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