Among the Intellectualoids

Stephen King, Scary Pest

Just in time for Halloween, a spooky empty mind.

By 10.31.07

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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.

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:

[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.

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.

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.

There will certainly be a new issue of The New Yorker and perhaps Glimmer Train and Harper's. No need to check out The Atlantic Monthly; its editors now settle for publishing their own selections of fiction once a year in a special issue and criticizing everyone else's the rest of the time. Jokes about eunuchs in the bordello come to mind, but I will suppress them.

Don't criticize unless you can do it better yourself! Straight out of Dr. Johnson's playbook. Last encountered by me in seventh grade, after complaining to a classmate about that year's Super Bowl halftime show.

Now, I mourn the short story much more than the next person. Odds are the next person hasn't read one in years. But you can't understand what ails a particular literary form without your brain cells rallying into some kind of critical shape. Trenchant criticism in the Atlantic can do much more for the state of fiction than publishing whatever comes with the current. James Wood has done much more, for example, than Stephen King.

But King can't handle criticism, possibly because his critical faculties are mis-located: "Do I want something that appeals to my critical nose? Maybe later (and, I admit it, maybe never)." As if critics read Shakespeare for whiffs of Edmund Wilson.

I should've stopped there and turned back. Like the coital coeds in the B-horror flick, however, I kept at it despite the ominous signs.

So into the bookstore I go, and what do I see first? A table filled with best-selling hardcover fiction at prices ranging from 20 percent to 40 percent off.... it hits you in the eye as soon as you come in, and why? Because these are the moneymakers and rent payers; these are the glamour ponies.

Boy, this guy's really in the know! Not that you should read the passage merely as a deft expose' of the industry-industrial complex. It's so much more. In fact, it contains the whole of King's answer to the essay's title question. As he or she elaborates, "It's tough for writers to write (and editors to edit) when faced with a shrinking audience." What results are stories "written for editors and teachers rather than for readers. The chief reason for all this, I think, is that bottom shelf."

Forget the unaddressed circularity. Forget how this contradicts his assertion that "if the writer is worth his or her salt, he or she continues on nevertheless." Forget, if you can, the implication that Paris Review's readership would rise significantly if only Barnes & Noble arranged copies of it to swoop from the ceiling and smack entering customers in the face.

Consider instead what happens when one treats language as a therapeutic tool rather than a discerning one. Picking his nose for insights, King can only dig up a restatement of the problem. It's not even restated helpfully. Parsed down, it sounds all too familiar: "The short story just needs some more attention. It needs you to be there for it." What ails the short story, apparently, is no different from what ails misbehavin' Meghan.
As for a solution, all we get is

...that sense of emotional involvement, of flipped-out amazement. I look for stories that care about my feelings as well as my intellect, and when I find one that is all-out emotionally assaultive...I grab that baby and hold on tight.... What I want to start with is something that comes at me full-bore, like a big, hot meteor screaming down from the Kansas sky. I want the ancient pleasure that probably goes back to the cave: to be blown clean out of myself for a while, as violently as a fighter pilot who pushes the eject button in his F-111.

Schoolboy similes aside, what's there? For all its talk of ejected fighter pilots and big hot meteors and blowjobs, nothing in that passage refers to the distinct, internal experience of reading -- which occurs while sitting alone in a room, ancient pleasures likely nowhere in reach.

King defines "real reading" as "the kind where you just can't wait to find out what happens next," which is true as far is it goes. But how far is that? I would say real reading is the kind where you can't wait to find out what just happened, and possibly spend the rest of your life thinking about it.

Though King rightly espouses the importance of vitality in fiction, he doesn't even attempt to identify what aspirations are necessary to create such vitality, let alone what cultural factors explain the relative absence of those aspirations today.

REASONABLE QUESTIONS REMAIN. "Who cares what Stephen King thinks? Why not just ignore him? Don't you have a life? Plus, he's looking more and more like a character out of Sesame Street -- which is funny, not frightening."

But he can't be ignored. King has emerged as a high-profile crusader in a worthy cause he threatens to undermine. Many young writers, alienated by the genre-segregation and postmodern meagerness of the literary establishment, are influenced by him. They should realize his shtick is just as meager and limiting. They should realize the enemy of their enemy is a pest at best.

Baby Boomer to the bone, King's literary reflections also betray his generation's penchant for being excessively self-conscious while utterly incapable of introspection -- a lovely combo, indeed, having culminated in a therapy culture whose frightfulness nobody can deny.

Fear, as you see, is circumstantial. That said, I'd be wise to take a cue from my beloved cynics. King's verdict on the short story, after all, is "Current condition stable, but apt to deteriorate in the years ahead." Looking for the underside has a special perk in cases like this. When complacent pessimism is the self-serving sentiment of the moment, a real cynic knows there must be light around the corner.

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