Just when I faced the possibility of being starved of spooks this Halloween season, along came Stephen King.
King, of course, is well-practiced at supplying spooks. I’m not talking about his novels. Those aren’t nearly as scary as his occasional forays into literary sermonizing, which should appall anyone who cares about the state of American sensibility.
The first foray was his memoir and credo On Writing. The title passes the critical posture test. It could’ve been “Knocking on Underwood” or “Two Fingers and a Remington Black” or something similarly faithful to King’s instincts. His unusual restraint here, combined with the jacket’s office-pastoral cover art, was instrumental to my having bought and read the book in high school.
On Writing had an influence on me in those impressionable years. Namely, it influenced me never to open another Stephen King book again. Given that he’s written 60 of them, this was quite an influence. Here’s the sentence from whence it came: “With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or picture across.”
Feel free to interpret that as a particularly obscene triumph of the irony gods. I’ll take it as an epitaph for literacy. Apparently one of those deep dark forces causing so much mayhem in King’s stories is none other than the Generic He.p>Receiving the 2003 National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters offered the platform for King’s second foray. In the acceptance speech, he tried to demean one of my most cherished traditions: br> /p>
[I]f an elevator full of people starts free-falling from the 35th floor of the skyscraper all the way to the bottom, one of those view elevators, perhaps, where you can watch it happening, in my opinion, no one is going to say, “Goodbye, Neil, I will see you in heaven.” In my book or my short story, they’re far more apt to bellow, “Oh s[—]t” at the top of their lungs because what I’ve read and heard tends to confirm the “Oh s[—]t” choice. If that makes me a cynic, so be it.br> Voila! — a noble outlook of incisive wit reduced to the mindset of a morbid seventh-grader. Sorry, but. Being cynical (Karl Rove) does not make you a cynic (H.L. Mencken), any more than being sexually frustrated makes you a hopeless romantic, or being comical makes you a comic. Cynics look for the sinister surprise beneath the apparently hunky dory, not the hysterical reaction to the obviously horrific. Cynics look for motive, not meaningless automata. Cynics, ultimately, enhance the understanding of human nature, not reduce it all to a gloomy cloud.
Does this strike you less as fright and more as advanced marble-loss? Let me to explain. Fright is borne of fear, and I fear the increasing degradation and childishness of our language and literary culture. While the puerile sentimentality of King’s latest foray — an essay titled “What Ails the Short Story?” — may not seem particularly scary, it left me feeling creeped out and cold.
Adapted from the introduction to his recent bit of community service as editor of The Best American Short Stories 2007, “What Ails the Short Story?” appeared a few weeks ago in the Essay section of the New York Times Book Review. Because the section is usually dedicated to niche fetishes — Garrison Keillor on the lost joys of sniffing paperback binding, etc. — I wandered in with my guard down.p>Then it came. The inane faux-profundities: “God or genetics (possibly they are the same).” The plebeian banalities: “I think — marvel, really — they paid me to read these! Are you kiddin’ me???” The oblivious repetition of a common opinion as if it were an original conclusion. Another grotesque performance of the he-or-she shuffle. The use of 1,400 words to say what could’ve been said in none. Soon every deficiency in King’s vapid shtick was revealed, mostly in the form of a riveting adventure to the magazine stand aback his local bookstore. br> /p>
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