Last weekend, I read Stephen King's book On Writing. It was marvelous.
I read Stephen King books in the 1980s. I read all his classics: Carrie, Salems' Lot, Cujo, The Stand, The Shining, Different Seasons. They were a thrill to read. It was hard to believe that such huge books could be read so fast. However, when I graduated from high school, I stopped reading King. I moved on, I suppose. In a memorable line from a foreword/introduction to one of his books, he stated that his books are the equivalent of a cheeseburger and fries. I eventually found other sumptuous meals.
Just a few weeks ago, a colleague at work said he read Hearts of Atlantis by King. On a lark, I bought a copy of that book, plus On Writing, which I have always been curious about.
On Writing contains a surprisingly moving and inspirational memoir about his life growing up. Sketches and images of his life are drawn quickly, many of which made me laugh out loud. He recounts the precious moment when he first wrote a story (at the age of six), to when the paperback rights were sold for Carrie, which marked the start of his success.
From there, he moves into the work of writing. His words carry authority, but he keeps things light. He relates writing and story telling to archaeology: you're digging up a fossil, which represents the story. Your success in capturing the story depends on how you lift it up out of the ground. Your tools are words, the English language, and grammar. The story is already there. You have to write write write, and eventually it will come out. (Dennis Lehane, who wrote Mystic River, echoed this concept in a recent on-line chat.)
The final part on On Writing deals with the horrible accident that nearly killed Stephen King in 1999. In a gripping narrative, I found myself in his spell. The moment of impact. The panic of emergency care. The pain of surgery. The road to recovery. The return to writing.
Stephen King was awarded the 2003 National Book Foundation's award for "distinguished contribution". Harold Bloom, a professor at Yale and author of The Western Canon wrote that this was a mistake, and proceeded to a scathing critique of King's work. Bloom's theme: "commercial success is not literary success".
I agree with Mr. Bloom somewhat. Just because a book is a commercial success doesn't mean that it's literary. Last month I finished Empire Falls by Richard Russo, and it was far more "literary" than any Stephen King book I have ever read. If a Stephen King book is a cheeseburger at a local diner, then Empire Falls is the best three-course dinner in the finest restaurant you can think of.
But I also disagree with Mr. Bloom's point that "King ... is an immensely inadequate writer." I disagree wholeheartedly. Maybe Mr. King doesn't belong in the same pantheon as "the great writers" (whomever they may be; Bloom suggests four: Pynchon, Roth, DeLillo, and McCarthy). But he belongs in the ball park. King is a more than an adequate writer. On Writing proves that.