Tuesday, February 26, 2008

An Open Letter to Stephen King

Dear Stephen:

Being an intellectual snob means I’ve missed out on a lot of good stuff in life. Tailgate parties, for example. Keg parties. Mary Kay parties. Lots of parties. I also missed out on “Melrose Place,” “Beverly Hills 90210,” “Dawson’s Creek,” “Felicity,” the first four seasons of “Friends” and, well, every single thing you've ever written. I thought I was too smart to go to those parties, watch those shows or read your books. For that last thing, I am truly sorry.

(I’m not at all sorry for missing those parties or “Dawson’s Creek,” though. The size of James Vanderbeek’s jaw makes me uncomfortable, like I’m watching chin porn. Also, you meet weird people at parties. I know because I’ve seen those “Real World” documentaries and episodes of “Quarterlife.”)

Until recently, I didn’t realize what I was missing by foregoing your work. I thought, “What does it matter? I’ve seen ‘Carrie.’ I’ve seen ‘The Shining’ and ‘Cujo’ and ‘The Stand.’” I figured I was well-versed in the King, uh, 'verse...or at least well-versed enough to fake it. I’m lazy that way.

But then you started writing for “Entertainment Weekly,” a magazine for which I have an indecent amount of love. Each Monday, the mailman finds me with my nose pressed to our glass door, a slight sheen of anticipation glistening on my lips – like if Cujo had been a supermodel. To complete the analogy, if I had a tail, I would wag it. That’s how much I love EW.

At first, I dismissed your column, thinking it’s probably just about zombies and axe-wielding hoteliers. And then I remembered I was a nerd and thought, “Hey! His column’s probably about zombies and axe-wielding hoteliers!” But it wasn’t. It was something even better. It was the work of a pop culture fan who loves music and movies and books just as much as I do and who writes about each of those subjects with a passion and gentle humor that is inspiring and, yes, addictive.

My husband, a King fan for years, saw his opening and recently handed me a copy of your novella, “The Long Walk.” It was riveting. I found myself in the kitchen washing the dishes with one hand, turning pages with the other and sometimes getting completely confused, requiring the judicious use of a hair dryer and Febreezing the not always pleasant odor of wet paper. While reading “The Long Walk,” the part of me that likes to feel smart and show off told my husband, “King must have been inspired by the Bataan death march.” He nodded, which I mentally translated as “yes, dear, I know you think you're smart, just be quiet.” And then I turned back to my reading because beyond historical allusions, "The Long Walk" is just a damn good story.

So now, I will no longer fight it. I will read your books. From this day forward, I’m giving up literary snobbery. Sure, I’ll still buy more trade paperbacks than mass markets. And may God strike me down if I ever willingly read a novelization of “Halo.” But I feel it’s time to open my literary horizons and embrace the idea that liking something a lot of other people like is not necessarily a bad thing, unless it’s NASCAR. Or “Deal or No Deal.” Or thongs on portly folk.

Witness me casting off the oppressive yoke of Harold Bloom and "The Times Literary Supplement" because, let’s face it, I don’t understand half the stuff I read in that publication anyway. It’s just a really good beard for the coffee shop literati. And Harold Bloom? Any man that inflicts a non-CGI “Beowulf” on me deserves not my admiration but my scorn. And maybe a pantsing.

Starting next week, I’m raiding my husband’s stash of King novels and diving in with gusto. I’ll likely be scared completely out of my mind and rendered sleepless and/or twitchy through July, but it’ll be worth it. Because I like you, Stephen. I like the way you think. I like the way you write a story, and I like the way you make the back page of EW, my pop culture crack addiction, shine.

I am, however, asking one small favor. Could you, for the love of all things holy, please stop writing for like ten minutes? I mean seriously, cut it out. Put the pen down. Play a few rounds of spider solitaire. Maybe take up knitting? Because, truly, some of us have some serious catching up to do and you’re not making it any easier.

Keep writing the columns though. I’ll be wanting your opinion on "Ironman."




Jen said...

I've always felt the same way, and although I recently started thinking I should give him a chance, I haven't actually done it yet.

I have read, and liked, all of his nonfiction, though.

Black Eyed Gurl said...

Might I recommend Cell? It's honestly one of his best books. His Short Stories are generally better than the books, which I will warn you, often feel like he realized "shit I have to finish this book cos it's already 400 pages! Shit!, okay here goes nothing!" I thoroughly enjoy the Tommyknockers (totally underrated), but honestly, Cell blew me away and made me consider rereading all that had come before in the King anthology. But I also have a stack of books that need to be read already, so I'm not making any promises.
I miss my EW subscription just for the King editorials.

Nancy said...

My argument for King has always been that he is a gifted storyteller. Not all great writers can tell a great story and not all great storytellers are great writers. At best King is a good writer but who the hell cares when the stories are as phenomenal as they are. Its far easier to read a great story thats written well than a beautifully written book where the story is completely unengaging.

Liz said...

Black eyed gurl, my husband just finished reading The Cell and really enjoyed it. It's been sitting on our couch for a couple days now, so I'll probably check it out this weekend.

Liz said...

Nancy, that's a good point about being a good storyteller versus being a great writer. I do think it takes a hell of a lot of creativity and talent to devise plots like he does.

Scrap Irony said...

I have an inordinately great disdain for mass market paperbacks.

I blame the years of bookstore employment for it.

hoolia goolia said...

I've spent most of my life walking the fine line between literary snob and unabashed lover of ALL fiction, so I sympathize ;)

AND, Stephen King has been a guilty-ish pleasure of mine too. I think what sets him apart from some of the other action-y, pop fiction writers is his dark sense of humor and the insane amount of creativity and depth he puts into his characterizations. Everyone, even the weirdos and freaks, are believable in his books. Which is sometimes the scary part in and of itself.

I'm a big fan of the first several books in the Dark Tower series if you're looking for more to read.

SavageKnight said...

Well, it'll be interesting to read what you think of the books as you go through them.

Personally... a lot of what I've read from him has been disappointing. It bothers me that he sometimes takes 3 pages to simply explain "he crossed the street". Too many words.

Anonymous said...

Stephen King wordy? That's something I would never say about him and his work. I am generally not a avid reader and I sometimes need to force myself not to pick up an S.K. book for the simple reason that each book starts with a bang and rarely ever slows down and the next thing you know you read 500 pages in one sitting. He is an excellent storyteller as others have said and his writing is simple and to the point. Maybe someone has him and James Joyce mixed up. ;)

Bethy said...

Oh my word. If you cannot make it through the entire dark tower series in text try it on CD, its truly amazing and epic and has some terrific links to his other works.
Hearts in Atlantis is a must read ASAP too.

Letishue said...

I've been fighting that same impulse! His back page essays are so good I'm beginning to think I misjudged him. Plus he's an avid Lost fan (and vice versa) which gives me extra incentive. I think I might try The Stand when I get time.

Anonymous said...

I've always considered myself a literary snob, too, but I freely admit that King has been a guilty(ish) pleasure for years. 'Salem's Lot, The Shining, Cujo, Pet Sematary - I'd strongly recommend that you start with his earlier work. I liked Cell, and his latest, Duma Key, but I don't think either shows his skills at storytelling and characterization like his earliest books, especially the first two I’ve listed. I’m impressed all over again when I pick up ‘Salem’s Lot – he weaves together all kinds of detail about the individuals and the town, and scares the crap out of you while doing it. The Stand is great, too, but man, is it a monster – especially the uncut version. I envy you discovering these books – like Nancy said in her comment above, he may not be a great writer (although sometimes I think he does approach it), but he is a great storyteller. Have fun!

SFG said...

King is that rare genre writer who can do characterization well. I think that may be part of his appeal.

Anonymous said...

I respectfully disagree with some of the other opinions. I think Cell is the worst book King has ever written. The story isn't believable, and not in the sense of, gee, that just isn't possible. Suspension of disbelief is intergral to any supernatural/horror type stories. I don't want to give away anything in the book, so I can't go further. I just was not impressed with it at all.

That said, I've read every single one of his books and liked them all. I've read The Stand at least 5 times, if not more.

I've always thought people would think I'm crazy if I said it, but King reminds me of Dickens. Dickens tends to give lengthy descriptions for even minor characters. King always gives you some sort of background for even the guy who is about to die in 2 pages. I like that about him. It gives me a little bit of an investment in even the minor characters.

Just my two cents.

Anonymous said...

Start from the begining.

I stopped reading King a few years back because I felt he had lost his edge and, admittedly, have not read Cell so perhaps it's back. His early works were/are amazing! Pet Semetary is the first book to give me nightmares.