The Sunday Salon: Stephen King on Writing

A confession: I like Stephen King. Never met the man, though I feel as if I have, or rather, I like the persona he presents in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. He seems personable. Maybe in real life he’s an arse, but something about the persona delivered in the book suggests he’s not.

He shares similar feelings about reading, writing, and literature that I do. I think if I were to ask him, he’d put a lowercase “l” on literature instead of the upper case “L” English teachers like, which is something I’ve tried to do as a reader over, say, the last 15 years.

What do I mean by this? Simply that genre writers — horror, mystery, science fiction, etc. — deserve as much attention as what many consider “literary” fiction. Not all. Some of it is crap. Just as some “literary” fiction is crap, no matter how many scholarly articles have been published on that fiction saying otherwise. I think King would agree.

“[N]o matter how much I want to encourage the man or woman trying for the first time to write seriously,” he writes, “I can’t lie and say there are no bad writers. Sorry, but there are lots of bad writers.”

Some of you reading this may put King in the pen with bad writers. I confess I did, say, 15 years ago. Back then I had read one of King’s novels, The Running Man, which he published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman.

I didn’t particularly care for that novel, but I was expecting it to be more like the Schwarzenegger movie based loosely on it that I saw a year or two before reading the book.

Before then, I hadn’t read any of King’s stuff because I was afraid to read any sort of horror novels (I still today resist horror movies, although that largely has to do with the gross-out factor: Watching someone on screen get dismembered with a chainsaw is disturbing, especially when it seems so gratuitous; I’m less squeamish witnessing the horrors of war in gritty detail in such films as Saving Private Ryan). Horror novels/movies — the few I read or saw — really did give me nightmares, or at least gave me the creeps enough to think twice about turning the lights out before going to bed. I was 18 before I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and was creeped out each night by something scratching on my bedroom window, which wasn’t near any trees.

In graduate school, King, among other writers, seemed to be scoffed at by my peers, and wanting to fit in and seem intellectual — I became a pretty capable scholar — I scoffed too.

The scoffing was a front. Most of my reading life until grad school consisted of reading science fiction and fantasy, although I had by then developed a serious Hemingway fixation. But in grad school, I wouldn’t read such trash, unless, say, it had been “legitimized” as serious in an English class (in my senior year I took a course in the short story and the anthology included Asimov and Ursula K. LeGuin, so those two were OK, sort of).

At the same time I was scoffing, I was also reading Henry Miller — in particular his “gob of spit in the face of Art,” Tropic of Cancer — and beginning to see literature should be spelled with a lowercase “l”.  I was reading a novel/memoir (Miller is a genre-buster) full of exuberant prose that was kicking the shit out of my notions of literature.

And yet, at least then, the academic literary world wasn’t all that convinced of Miller’s seriousness. Or that was the impression I had once I tried to find scholarly articles on Miller when I finally was able to write a paper on Tropic of Cancer

Of the slim pile I did find, many were negative, written by hardcore feminists who seemed bent on destroying Miller’s reputation. One book, however, caught my attention — Erica Jong’s biography/memoir/critical treatise on Miller, The Devil at Large.

She defended Miller with the gusto of an evangelist. What she also evangelized was the power of reading, the power of literature, the power of art in all its forms.

I find that same joy reading King’s memoir. Reading and writing are a joy for him. Art sustains him, invigorates him.

“Writing is magic,” he writes, “as much the water of life as any other creative art.” I couldn’t agree more.


5 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Stephen King on Writing

  1. Nice write-up. I think there are a lot of writers out there (small and big L) who can claim King as an early influence (whether significant or in-passing is another question). He’s an absolute pro at what he does.

    • I totally agree he’s a pro. He spends a lot of time at the keyboard, writing, getting in a certain amount of words every day. And certainly an influence. I like like his short stories, too. I read one in a December issue if the New Yorker and it was a perfect slice of life. It also briefly made me think twice about what I eat (it’s about a woman who has a sudden heart attack and I had been stuffing myself with a lot of fast food). It was a “literary” short story, but had an eerie quality to it.

  2. He’s an influence on me for sure. I particularly like King’s short stories. Sci Fi and mystery writers can teach us all a lot about telling a story. I’d contend that the basic storyline IS mystery.

  3. I have not read his novels, but admire greatly some of the movies made from them, especially the non-horror movies–he has a real touch for writing about ordinary people–and love Stand by Me. The New Yorker recently ran one of his short stories and I enjoyed it greatly, a slice of life really. His book on writing is top shelf.

  4. Great post, Todd. I love Stephen King for so many reasons. I think he is a true writer’s advocate. Nice blog look. Looking forward to checking out the new blog, too!

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