Oct 24, 2008, 09:01AM

Stephen King: The Self-Aware Literary Badass

30 years on, The Stand still haunts readers. And its author has slowly gained respectability by remaining unpretentious and honest about his work.

Kudos to Salon for having the interest, less than two weeks before a presidential election, to still fund and run an interview with Stephen King to commemorate the 30th anniversary of his opus The Stand. As conducted by John Marks, the discussion is a typically great sit-down with the best-selling writer of all time, replete with the horror master’s sardonic wit and self-criticism. It’s essential reading for anyone who likes the man’s books, and perhaps even more so for those who have never read them out of snobbery.

King has sold so many books and become such a cultural institution that any serious reader eventually has to come to grips with him. The common thinking is that no writer can be so popular and still be considered “literary”; perhaps the better question is, how can a writer who speaks to such a tremendous audience be truly “bad”? King is unabashed about his stylistic shortcomings, namely a complete lack of style, which he likens to early-20th century writers like Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser. In 2003, a quarter-century after publishing his best-loved book, King received the National Book Association’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and he gave an eminently quotable acceptance speech that included the following:

I was in those early days [of my career] so often bitterly angry at writers who were considered "literary." I knew I didn't have quite enough talent or polish to be one of them so there was an element of jealousy, but I was also infuriated by how these writers always seemed to have the inside track in my view at that time.

He refers to the unfair assumption that his books, because they were so popular, were written for money. It’s a bizarre conclusion to reach, particularly given how many of King’s books are exceedingly long (The Stand, in its unexpurgated version released in 1990, runs over 1100 pages) and brimming with gross (not titillating) subject matter. As for the dismissive claim that his books are merely first drafts for eventual and inevitable movie treatments, that ignores the fact that most King-based movies, in addition to being aesthetic failures, have also tanked financially. For every Shawshank Redemption and Carrie, there’s a handful of Thinners, Cujos, Dreamcatchers, and of course, the TV miniseries of The Stand.

The Salon interview, which mostly addresses that book, contains much of King’s typical modesty. Asked to account for his success, for instance, he nearly brushes it off:

Some of it is chronological accident. I'm a baby boomer, and I'm an old baby boomer. I was born in 1947. You can't say I'm the oldest of the old, but I'm close to it. I was the first in that generation to become a best-selling writer in my own right, so I was the guy, the first guy, I think, I can't think of anyone else, to become a bestseller and join people from the old guard like Irwin Shaw, James Michener and Herman Wouk. I was the guy who wrote best-selling books who had also marched in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam.

Here, I think, we have the key to King’s success, both artistically and commercially. The man has a distinctly American (one has to assume it’s also rural New England) avoidance of bullshit at all costs. As seen in his tremendous memoir On Writing, he writes purely for the visceral thrill of storytelling. There’s always an audience in mind for King, and subsequently, always a pressure to entertain. And since the more hoity-toity gatekeepers of the literary world don’t very much value entertainment for it's own sake as an inherently worthwhile pursuit, it blinds them to the extraordinary creativity in King’s work that overcomes any stylistic deficit he may have.

I’ve read a handful of King’s novels, and while The Stand isn’t my favorite (that would be It, the grim and beautiful affront to anyone who thinks the man can’t write, and one of the best American novels of the last 25 years), it’s certainly the greatest testament to the breadth of his imaginative powers, as well as the best example of his numerous shortcomings. It’s a hugely ambitious novel, in which a plague called Captain Trips is accidentally loosed from an American military base and wipes out most of the country’s population within days. Then the forces of good and evil have to do battle one more (not last) time for the fate of humankind. It’s all great fun, filled with memorable characters and set pieces, and it also exemplifies the shortcomings that detractors cite in King’s work: for one, it’s unnecessarily long, in desperate need of a sympathetic editor (although it was King’s fans, not he, that demanded the eventual “director’s cut” version be published). It’s also persistently melodramatic, with a brusque approach to characterizations that sometimes works and sometimes falls flat.

But still, that ambition. King’s desire to entertain, to will his audience into his narrative spell, is on every page. And when his scary moments work—my favorite is an office meeting when the evil Randall Flagg slowly reveals his powers to a follower—they are as emotionally engaging as any book you’ll read, it just so happens that the emotion is fear. And The Stand contains what I consider to be the quintessential Stephen King sentence, describing the long-suffering man-child called Trashcan Man, who suffers brutally at the hands of a sadistic redneck named The Kid. In the aftermath of a viral near-apocalypse, and after being routinely sodomized by the abuser that he’s too scared to leave, Trashcan Man experiences the following: “He made wee-wee in his pants, and his mind dissolved into a madly fluttering black bird of panic.”

That’s Stephen King in a nutshell—simultaneously crude and poetically over-ambitious beyond his stylistic abilities. But it’s also strangely, undeniably descriptive on a visceral level. It’s a testament to his storytelling powers, and his understanding of the most primal human emotions, that 30 years after writing a sentence that bizarre and uneven, King is now a National Book Association-certified writer and worthy of celebration on a site as knowingly high-culture as Salon. He deserves all credit he’s finally being given.

  • In my opinion, he is a very talented writer. He has influenced or inspired me more than anyone else. The main thing that I like about him is the attention to the details... like what I have read in one novel where the character pees in the open and keeps wondering about the joy of that experience. Totally random thoughts that is so natural. I do not care much about his scary part. I see a quality beyond and above that.

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  • Ay Caramba! Stephen King "has influenced or inspired me more than anyone else." You're joking, right? No knock on King, I've read several of his novels, but that praise seems either far-fetched or just very, very strange.

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  • Hear hear, John! King can write amazingly well when he wants to. I know Joyce Carol Oates is a big King fan, but it's nice to see others recognize his talent and not dismiss him as a sell-out or producer of unimportant genre fiction.

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  • I was a huge King fan when I was younger, have read almost all his books, and I too was inspired by him. I personally think the Dark Tower saga is the best work he's produced and definitely deserves mentioning.

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