Saturday, January 29, 2005

IN THE PRESENCE OF THE KING

In addition to pontificating on the humor and literary merits of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I constantly find myself defending the works of Stephen King.

This is mind-boggling to me, as--in addition to the immense popularity of his books and the pervasiveness of his images and stories in contemporary culture--the genius is plainly there. You’ve probably seen them, and lost sleep over them, even if you didn’t know you were in the presence of the King. (The Shining and Dreamcatcher, alone, were responsible for many nights of insomnia. And don't get me started on Insomnia.)

Shawshank Redemption. Stand By Me. The Shining. Misery. Carrie. They are all icons of horror and suspense, and deal with both supernatural demons and inner demons. They are studies of character and relationship; villains are sometimes spectral, other times desperately human.

In TV's serialization tension is defrayed and the fear factor lessened, but the King continues to rule: from the well-reviewed but doomed Kingdom Hospital to TV movies of Salem’s Lot, Storm of the Century, The Stand, The Tommyknockers, Needful Things, Riding the Bullet, TV has brought King to the basic cable subscribers. Where would TNT and USA be without Stephen King?

The fictional town of Castle Rock became a place on the literary landscape with its own history: its criminals go to Shawshank, its citizens remember their forebears and the unusual incidents that happened in that town “back in the day.” King routinely introduces characters, fleshes them out as if they’re going to be the problem-solvers in their book’s respective scenarios, only to kill them off within the chapter. Each character, no matter how minor, is fully developed—full character descriptions, inner thoughts, dreams for the future, etc, even if that character has no future to speak of. In Desperation, King used the same character names, as in the Regulators. Plus, he's in a band with Dave Barry. That’s genius. But not every writer can mold to this method.

Ayelet, the self-proclaimed Bad Mother (who, despite her name, comes off as eminently and refreshingly human and not in any way a dangerous maternal figure) writes about having met the King of Horror Literature through her husband Michael Chabon, author of the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and the new novel The Final Solution. But more amazing than an author meeting an author is a meeting like the one she describes on her blog:

It turns out that all over the country in response to Columbine kids are being prosecuted ... yes PROSECUTED ... for writing fiction. Now, I understand the fear. I understand the horror of the shoot out. What I don't get is the response. My response to Columbine is to wonder what is wrong with a culture that so ostracizes and alienates a child that he ends up so crazy. What is wrong with the mentality of a high school where kids are made to feel so bitterly freakish and outlawed? Instead, we fixate on the kid writing the fiction. Instead of worrying about what's going on in his head, instead of feeling his pain and wondering at its source, we arrest him. Instead of stopping the bullying, we target the bullied.

Michael had a brilliant response to this. He decided to teach a class at 826 Valencia in horror and dark fantasy writing...for teenagers. He told Stephen King about it, and this incredibly famous man, this man with a million things to do, a million commitments, a million demands on his time, said, "Dude, you teach that class, and I'll be there."On the last day of class, he was there. As a surprise guest. You should have seen the kids' faces. They were out of their minds. When he told them that he was an amateur, just like them, they scribbled in their notebooks. When he asked them what they wrote, what their techniques were, you could see their self-confidence expand before your eyes. It was amazing.

Stephen King is giving back, inspiring the next generation of writers, and providing encouragement to the students who need it most. Ayelet said it first, but I’ll second the motion. King’s not just the king. He’s also a mensch.

11 Comments:

At 12:14 AM, January 30, 2005, Blogger Ken Wheaton said...

Good post, Esther. Some people think I'm a literary snob because I think The Da Vinci Code sucked monkey nads, but, hell, I thought The Corrections sucked gorrila feet, so ... I've got nothing against popular writing if it's good. And King is better than good. I used to DEVOUR King books. They're just impossible to put down some times. And his book about writing is damn good, too. The man can simply write.

 
At 2:12 AM, January 30, 2005, Blogger BridalBeer said...

Now that you mention it, while some Forbes guys give back in philanthropy, where are the generous writer-millionaires? I wish King has company.

 
At 2:13 AM, January 30, 2005, Blogger BridalBeer said...

Now that you mention it, while some Forbes guys give back in philanthropy, where are the generous writer-millionaires? I wish King had company.

 
At 11:04 AM, January 30, 2005, Blogger T.A.B. said...

Personally, I think that, in terms of writing, King is good at build-up, but not so good at climax. I still read his stuff, simply because he's so popular, it sometimes gives me a frame of reference to speak with others. And I do own his "Dark Tower" books.

 
At 12:27 PM, January 30, 2005, Blogger sassy little punkin said...

e, i first wanted you to know that i read your page daily, at the very least, but the commenting feature doesn't always load properly and i make a comment out loud (which, obviously you can't hear from where i am in l.a.) and then go on with life. today, with some patience, i got lucky! (commenting, that is. sigh...) anyhow. i don't care for king's books in general (i last read one in the 5th grade, so, well, that was enough for me) but i do agree that it's rather impressive that he came out to support the class and those kids! that's wonderful! admirable! being a good writer and teacher and influence! so, hats off to him. and, because someone mentioned it in the comments, i refuse to read "davinci code" because i can tell it's crap because everyone is gobbling it up like the last supper. and if all these midwestern christian housewives are reading it, i daresay they aren't really understanding it, because isn't it making some rather serious (albeit disguised in mediocre "fiction") anti-religious/church claims? so, like,yeah... i mean, really, people. enough with the hype.

 
At 12:32 PM, January 30, 2005, Blogger Gatsby said...

I agree with you Esther that he's a brilliant writer, and with you Bob that many of his endings aren't so good. But, i think the lackluster endings are sometimes due to the fact that his buildups are so amazing. As you describe Esther, he flushes out every character and builds everything up that you think the finalis will be spectacular. So, sometimes when they are not, it's a bit of a letdown. That being said,The Dark Tower books are superb, and the Shining still gives me shivers. Shawshank is so moving, as is The Body, the Long Walk, and Running man. He's just amazing.

 
At 3:27 PM, January 30, 2005, Blogger Ken Wheaton said...

Sassy,
I think assuming that Da Vinci Code is crap because "midwestern housewives" are snapping up is falling into the same trap that people fall in with King. Only after reading the Da Vinci Code did I determine it was crap. After all, Jonathan Franzen's Corrections was the darling of the literati and that book, too, was crap (but for different reasons). Also, it should go without saying that even though Dan Brown hung the Da Vinci Code on some slightly scandalous (and incredibly stupid and illogical) historical revisionism, the novel was trying to be a thriller. And it should also be pointed out that a) anti-Church has little to do with the vast majority of nonCatholic Christians in the country and b) while many in the U.S. claim to be Christian and the media likes to make it seem like all those Red States are crawling with bible-thumping Christers one step from forming Al Qaeda brigades, the fact that Dan Brown doesn't have to go into hiding proves otherwise.

 
At 7:39 PM, January 30, 2005, Blogger Plantation said...

Wow, BB's in the house, too?
I gotta get over to KW's house one of these days...

 
At 9:55 AM, January 31, 2005, Blogger sassy little punkin said...

i never said the reason why i assumed it was crap had anything to do with midwestern housewives. that was an observation about the crowd mentality of america, as in "well, so and so said it was great, and then my book club read it, and, then aunt ellen loved it, so it must be great, and, even though i read like one book a year i'll read this one, so, hey, yeah, what a great book." that kind of thinking, yes, i'll agree to an extent, is what propels most mass-market fiction, like king, like grisham, like clancy, like danielle steel. i do have quite a bit of authority in this department on a couple of levels, one being that i study books and teach them for a living, i write professionally, and not so long ago i ran a giant book store. so i rubbed elbows with those very masses. someone very close to me who is interested in the kind of mystery brown is referencing in terms of hidden biblical messages and the like, was quite taken with it, and we had a very long discussion about how many people wouldn't even catch some of the things he was alluding to. i know many people who've read it, but i just don't forsee myself reading it. i don't care for the genre, the topic, or, (and this is what you may feel free to ding me on, since it's probably a character flaw, but i will stand behind it as my own, nonethelss) because i don't like to read, watch, go see, listen to etc. what everyone else hypes. because i'm always disappointed.

 
At 2:52 PM, January 31, 2005, Blogger Coelecanth said...

The only one I've read is "Christine" and I didn't really enjoy it. But I really admire the man. I read and enjoyed "Mid-Life Confidential", the book he and the other members of the Rock Bottom Remainders wrote about their mini-tour of the east coast of the States. A great read if you can find it. It's funny,insightful and suprisingly moving. I've even heard the CD they put out a few years later. Not so good, but still fun.

I also read, enjoyed and learned something from "On Writing". In fact it's inspired me to take another look at King's books. This post is going to make me act on that inspiration. Suggestions?

As to "The Divici Code", well, I work in a used book store and we've a waiting list for it. It's the first novel that I remember topping the both the hardcover and paperback fiction bestseller lists at the same time. Maybe Lord of the Rings might managed it after the release of the first movie though.

The thing that irks me about it is how it came to be popular. Before TDC Dan Brown was a mid-level thriller writer. He always sold but we never had a wait list for any of his titles. The prequel, "Angels and Demons" didn't sell very well and soon went out of print, we never had anyone ask for it before now.

When TDC first came out we didn't have much demand for it. But then he got sued for plagerism. That's when we started to get calls for it. Getting sued gave him the mainstream, primetime media coverage he needed to push TDC into the bestseller elite.

The other thing that irks me about it is just how serious people are taking it. It's a novel for &*%$# sake! It's not a guide to all the secrets of the uninverse. The willingness of people to maintain their suspension of disbelief once they're done reading is frightening. It's as if people are using the book's popularity to support their wacky conpsiracy theories. Everyone is reading it, so there must be some truth in it, right? Bah!

 
At 5:53 PM, January 31, 2005, Blogger Ayelet Waldman said...

Re: Generous writers. Dave Eggers gives vast quantities of money and time to 826 Valencia. He's the most generous man I know, bar none.

 

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My Urban Kvetch: IN THE PRESENCE OF THE KING

Saturday, January 29, 2005

IN THE PRESENCE OF THE KING

In addition to pontificating on the humor and literary merits of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I constantly find myself defending the works of Stephen King.

This is mind-boggling to me, as--in addition to the immense popularity of his books and the pervasiveness of his images and stories in contemporary culture--the genius is plainly there. You’ve probably seen them, and lost sleep over them, even if you didn’t know you were in the presence of the King. (The Shining and Dreamcatcher, alone, were responsible for many nights of insomnia. And don't get me started on Insomnia.)

Shawshank Redemption. Stand By Me. The Shining. Misery. Carrie. They are all icons of horror and suspense, and deal with both supernatural demons and inner demons. They are studies of character and relationship; villains are sometimes spectral, other times desperately human.

In TV's serialization tension is defrayed and the fear factor lessened, but the King continues to rule: from the well-reviewed but doomed Kingdom Hospital to TV movies of Salem’s Lot, Storm of the Century, The Stand, The Tommyknockers, Needful Things, Riding the Bullet, TV has brought King to the basic cable subscribers. Where would TNT and USA be without Stephen King?

The fictional town of Castle Rock became a place on the literary landscape with its own history: its criminals go to Shawshank, its citizens remember their forebears and the unusual incidents that happened in that town “back in the day.” King routinely introduces characters, fleshes them out as if they’re going to be the problem-solvers in their book’s respective scenarios, only to kill them off within the chapter. Each character, no matter how minor, is fully developed—full character descriptions, inner thoughts, dreams for the future, etc, even if that character has no future to speak of. In Desperation, King used the same character names, as in the Regulators. Plus, he's in a band with Dave Barry. That’s genius. But not every writer can mold to this method.

Ayelet, the self-proclaimed Bad Mother (who, despite her name, comes off as eminently and refreshingly human and not in any way a dangerous maternal figure) writes about having met the King of Horror Literature through her husband Michael Chabon, author of the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and the new novel The Final Solution. But more amazing than an author meeting an author is a meeting like the one she describes on her blog:

It turns out that all over the country in response to Columbine kids are being prosecuted ... yes PROSECUTED ... for writing fiction. Now, I understand the fear. I understand the horror of the shoot out. What I don't get is the response. My response to Columbine is to wonder what is wrong with a culture that so ostracizes and alienates a child that he ends up so crazy. What is wrong with the mentality of a high school where kids are made to feel so bitterly freakish and outlawed? Instead, we fixate on the kid writing the fiction. Instead of worrying about what's going on in his head, instead of feeling his pain and wondering at its source, we arrest him. Instead of stopping the bullying, we target the bullied.

Michael had a brilliant response to this. He decided to teach a class at 826 Valencia in horror and dark fantasy writing...for teenagers. He told Stephen King about it, and this incredibly famous man, this man with a million things to do, a million commitments, a million demands on his time, said, "Dude, you teach that class, and I'll be there."On the last day of class, he was there. As a surprise guest. You should have seen the kids' faces. They were out of their minds. When he told them that he was an amateur, just like them, they scribbled in their notebooks. When he asked them what they wrote, what their techniques were, you could see their self-confidence expand before your eyes. It was amazing.

Stephen King is giving back, inspiring the next generation of writers, and providing encouragement to the students who need it most. Ayelet said it first, but I’ll second the motion. King’s not just the king. He’s also a mensch.

11 Comments:

At 12:14 AM, January 30, 2005, Blogger Ken Wheaton said...

Good post, Esther. Some people think I'm a literary snob because I think The Da Vinci Code sucked monkey nads, but, hell, I thought The Corrections sucked gorrila feet, so ... I've got nothing against popular writing if it's good. And King is better than good. I used to DEVOUR King books. They're just impossible to put down some times. And his book about writing is damn good, too. The man can simply write.

 
At 2:12 AM, January 30, 2005, Blogger BridalBeer said...

Now that you mention it, while some Forbes guys give back in philanthropy, where are the generous writer-millionaires? I wish King has company.

 
At 2:13 AM, January 30, 2005, Blogger BridalBeer said...

Now that you mention it, while some Forbes guys give back in philanthropy, where are the generous writer-millionaires? I wish King had company.

 
At 11:04 AM, January 30, 2005, Blogger T.A.B. said...

Personally, I think that, in terms of writing, King is good at build-up, but not so good at climax. I still read his stuff, simply because he's so popular, it sometimes gives me a frame of reference to speak with others. And I do own his "Dark Tower" books.

 
At 12:27 PM, January 30, 2005, Blogger sassy little punkin said...

e, i first wanted you to know that i read your page daily, at the very least, but the commenting feature doesn't always load properly and i make a comment out loud (which, obviously you can't hear from where i am in l.a.) and then go on with life. today, with some patience, i got lucky! (commenting, that is. sigh...) anyhow. i don't care for king's books in general (i last read one in the 5th grade, so, well, that was enough for me) but i do agree that it's rather impressive that he came out to support the class and those kids! that's wonderful! admirable! being a good writer and teacher and influence! so, hats off to him. and, because someone mentioned it in the comments, i refuse to read "davinci code" because i can tell it's crap because everyone is gobbling it up like the last supper. and if all these midwestern christian housewives are reading it, i daresay they aren't really understanding it, because isn't it making some rather serious (albeit disguised in mediocre "fiction") anti-religious/church claims? so, like,yeah... i mean, really, people. enough with the hype.

 
At 12:32 PM, January 30, 2005, Blogger Gatsby said...

I agree with you Esther that he's a brilliant writer, and with you Bob that many of his endings aren't so good. But, i think the lackluster endings are sometimes due to the fact that his buildups are so amazing. As you describe Esther, he flushes out every character and builds everything up that you think the finalis will be spectacular. So, sometimes when they are not, it's a bit of a letdown. That being said,The Dark Tower books are superb, and the Shining still gives me shivers. Shawshank is so moving, as is The Body, the Long Walk, and Running man. He's just amazing.

 
At 3:27 PM, January 30, 2005, Blogger Ken Wheaton said...

Sassy,
I think assuming that Da Vinci Code is crap because "midwestern housewives" are snapping up is falling into the same trap that people fall in with King. Only after reading the Da Vinci Code did I determine it was crap. After all, Jonathan Franzen's Corrections was the darling of the literati and that book, too, was crap (but for different reasons). Also, it should go without saying that even though Dan Brown hung the Da Vinci Code on some slightly scandalous (and incredibly stupid and illogical) historical revisionism, the novel was trying to be a thriller. And it should also be pointed out that a) anti-Church has little to do with the vast majority of nonCatholic Christians in the country and b) while many in the U.S. claim to be Christian and the media likes to make it seem like all those Red States are crawling with bible-thumping Christers one step from forming Al Qaeda brigades, the fact that Dan Brown doesn't have to go into hiding proves otherwise.

 
At 7:39 PM, January 30, 2005, Blogger Plantation said...

Wow, BB's in the house, too?
I gotta get over to KW's house one of these days...

 
At 9:55 AM, January 31, 2005, Blogger sassy little punkin said...

i never said the reason why i assumed it was crap had anything to do with midwestern housewives. that was an observation about the crowd mentality of america, as in "well, so and so said it was great, and then my book club read it, and, then aunt ellen loved it, so it must be great, and, even though i read like one book a year i'll read this one, so, hey, yeah, what a great book." that kind of thinking, yes, i'll agree to an extent, is what propels most mass-market fiction, like king, like grisham, like clancy, like danielle steel. i do have quite a bit of authority in this department on a couple of levels, one being that i study books and teach them for a living, i write professionally, and not so long ago i ran a giant book store. so i rubbed elbows with those very masses. someone very close to me who is interested in the kind of mystery brown is referencing in terms of hidden biblical messages and the like, was quite taken with it, and we had a very long discussion about how many people wouldn't even catch some of the things he was alluding to. i know many people who've read it, but i just don't forsee myself reading it. i don't care for the genre, the topic, or, (and this is what you may feel free to ding me on, since it's probably a character flaw, but i will stand behind it as my own, nonethelss) because i don't like to read, watch, go see, listen to etc. what everyone else hypes. because i'm always disappointed.

 
At 2:52 PM, January 31, 2005, Blogger Coelecanth said...

The only one I've read is "Christine" and I didn't really enjoy it. But I really admire the man. I read and enjoyed "Mid-Life Confidential", the book he and the other members of the Rock Bottom Remainders wrote about their mini-tour of the east coast of the States. A great read if you can find it. It's funny,insightful and suprisingly moving. I've even heard the CD they put out a few years later. Not so good, but still fun.

I also read, enjoyed and learned something from "On Writing". In fact it's inspired me to take another look at King's books. This post is going to make me act on that inspiration. Suggestions?

As to "The Divici Code", well, I work in a used book store and we've a waiting list for it. It's the first novel that I remember topping the both the hardcover and paperback fiction bestseller lists at the same time. Maybe Lord of the Rings might managed it after the release of the first movie though.

The thing that irks me about it is how it came to be popular. Before TDC Dan Brown was a mid-level thriller writer. He always sold but we never had a wait list for any of his titles. The prequel, "Angels and Demons" didn't sell very well and soon went out of print, we never had anyone ask for it before now.

When TDC first came out we didn't have much demand for it. But then he got sued for plagerism. That's when we started to get calls for it. Getting sued gave him the mainstream, primetime media coverage he needed to push TDC into the bestseller elite.

The other thing that irks me about it is just how serious people are taking it. It's a novel for &*%$# sake! It's not a guide to all the secrets of the uninverse. The willingness of people to maintain their suspension of disbelief once they're done reading is frightening. It's as if people are using the book's popularity to support their wacky conpsiracy theories. Everyone is reading it, so there must be some truth in it, right? Bah!

 
At 5:53 PM, January 31, 2005, Blogger Ayelet Waldman said...

Re: Generous writers. Dave Eggers gives vast quantities of money and time to 826 Valencia. He's the most generous man I know, bar none.

 

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