Monday Motivation: The genius of Stephen King
Stephen King wrote one of the best books ever published on writing. My bet is that you’re one of the thousands of aspiring writers who’ve read On Writing, and profited thereby. So there’s no question that his advice on writing is excellent, and that that excellence is widely acknowledged.
But how good are his novels? I’ve read a fair number of them– although these are outnumbered by those I haven’t read. The man, after all, has written sixty one works of fiction – and six of non-fiction. (It’s a bit infuriating.)
I’ve read the Dark Tower sequence, a number of his classic horror stories like The Shining and It, and more recently stories like Duma Key, 11/22.63 and, over the last few weeks, his latest, The Institute.
Critics write him off in a disparaging phrase or two. One compared him with a sneer to McDonald’s. When The New Yorker published one of his short stories, which then went on to win the O. Henry Award, a prestigious literary journal said that it was “one of the weaker stories” of the O. Henry collection published that year.
In the eyes of some critics, King is forever relegated to low-brow status simply because he writes genre fiction.
Okay, so much for his “literary” reputation – or lack of it. What I want to focus on are his strengths, and not his supposed weaknesses.
One of the features of much of his fiction (like Dickens’s) is the sheer number of characters he invents. The dangers writers risk in doing this is that this legion of characters become interchangeable, and that your readers will encounter problems remembering who Pete is, as opposed to Bill. King, like Dickens, meets this challenge head-on by clothing every character he creates in a wealth of detail that distinguishes each from all the others.
In The Institute, there are half a dozen teenage characters, and dozens of adults. Even the least of these is pinned to the wall of our imagination with a telling detail, a distinguishing quirk, a memorable tic.
I’ve remarked before on the fact that every work of fiction requires that the writer creates an entire universe. This “world-building” function was thought to be the especial responsibility of writers of fantasy and science fiction. After all, the world of Dune is completely different from ours, and was entirely the product of Frank Herbert’s rich imagination.
But so, dear reader, are the various worlds in which Jane Austen’s heroines exist. Even if a novel is set in a town or city that we’re well acquainted with, the writer has to create it afresh on the page.
King accomplishes this feat with such consummate ease that we’re not even aware of it. The various towns and villages of New England, where so much of his fiction is set, are as real and convincing as anything in fiction. His deployment of quotidian detail is really quite extraordinary, the references to contemporary culture dense and convincing.
And finally, what I deeply admire in all the King novels that I’ve read is their clarity. I’ve written before about clarity being a kind of beauty in and of itself. He leads us carefully through his stories, judging perfectly where to erect his signposts, where to slow the pace in order for us to understand precisely what’s happening and where to speed up when it’s only the next turn in the path that’s significant.
To admire a writer’s gifts is to learn from them. If I were able to deploy those of Stephen King’s skills I’ve described here (and there are many more that I haven’t touched on), I would judge myself fortunate indeed.