A book is like a pump. It gives nothing unless first you give to it. You prime a pump with your own water, you work the handle with your own strength. You do this because you expect to get back more than you give... eventually. - Stephen King, "Low Men in Yellow Coats," Hearts in Atlantis
Several influential writers died this past summer: Elmore Leonard, Richard Matheson and Jack Germond to name a few. When reading obituaries and tributes about these wordsmiths I considered how unfortunate it was these accolades weren't written while they were alive. Which got me thinking ... if he were to die tomorrow, there's one writer I would feel remorse for not taking the opportunity to express my gratitude for: Stephen King.
While Stuff of Genius traditionally focuses on inventors and scientists, "genius" is a subjective term. When we dub someone a genius, it's usually because they're intelligent. But other factors like persistence, productivity, creativity and influence can also be considered. I call Stephen King a genius because he embodies all these qualities. His work has had significant impact on the development of many readers, especially children. King's stories also act as social commentary on the American family, culture and ethics. He's built a plentiful canon that's not only widely read, but is also scrutinized by academic critics for its quality. Despite their quibbles, King has received plenty of awards acknowledging the importance of his literary work.
I first encountered King when I was 5 years old, living on Black Mountain in Jackson, N.H. That winter I noticed a book my mother had left lying around. The cover showed a hellish-looking, green-eyed cat with fangs bared and a blood red tongue folding in on itself. The cat's fur swirled into another scene depicting a silhouetted figure at dusk, carrying a small body toward a graveyard. The title was "Pet Sematary." I may have only been 5, but I knew it was wrong ... almost corrupt somehow from the misspelling.
A few weeks later, before she actually let me read that book, my mother told me a story. Like us, Stephen King was a New Englander. Up the road from us lived a high school boy whose little brother had destroyed his entire collection of King novels in a fit of sibling rage. According to my mother, that high school boy wrote a letter to Mr. King, explaining the incident. In response, King sent him signed hardback copies of all his books to date: "Christine," "'Salem's Lot," "Carrie," "Firestarter" and more. It may have just been one of those yarns a mother spins for her son, but that day I had a revelation. Not only was Stephen King an alluring writer of scary monsters ... but he was also a good person. Until then, the two had seemed to be mutually exclusive.
This kind of interaction about literature between parents and their children is part of King's influence on American culture. In 1999, Kelly Chandler performed a study showing that King's work increased the likelihood that families would share books with their kids, contributing to the literacy of their children. She also recommended that teachers approach the education of these young engaged readers differently than their peers who didn't regularly read for pleasure.
Chandler's study certainly reflects my own reading development. All through my childhood I escaped into the worlds King created. I primed that book pump and got back more than I gave. By the time I was 13, he wasn't Stephen King anymore, but "Uncle Stevie," the gentle, sarcastic counselor that spoke to me with a wink in his introduction to each book.
To avoid bullies in high school, I spent my lunches in the library reading his novels. Uncle Stevie was so prolific that I never ran out of stuff to read. More importantly, his ideas were influential, helping me begin to comprehend why there were bullies and how to empathize with them. I could "hear" Uncle Stevie in between the lines in his fiction. He was a role model at a time when I needed one the most.
Several literary critics have since argued that King's works are examinations of American society, morality and personal ethics. His point of view as a post-war Baby Boomer is critical of his own generation's failures. "Pet Semetary" for instance was one of his first books to start with a seemingly happy family, but demonstrated the dysfunction lying below their domestic veneer. Published at a time when religious and family conservatism was on the rise, King was offering an alternative view of the American family and social corruption. Because King's horrors are culturally symbolic, they can have a cathartic effect for modern American readers. That was my experience too, as I grew up trying to make sense of the rapidly changing world around me.
When I went to college I wanted to be like Uncle Stevie ... I wanted to write. My fiction professor - a novelist himself - wasn't thrilled by my output. After writing an awful short story about a hitchhiker getting a lift from a monster disguised as a matronly salad chef, my professor and I had a little office-hours meeting. I assumed he was one of the "book snobs" King later referred to in Hearts in Atlantis, someone who read for the words instead of the story. In retrospect, I think he genuinely wanted to help me be a better writer. Naïvely, I told him I wanted to write like Stephen King. His response was, "Well ... some of the things King's written are okay."
I took that professor's authoritative words as gospel, thinking I'd been foolish all those years and Stephen King was just an "okay" writer who sold paperbacks at the grocery to those who didn't know any better. I took a C in the class and decided I didn't have what it took to write.
It turns out academic derision for King's work isn't uncommon, but there are arguments in literary criticism that he should be accepted as a "legitimate" writer. In 2002, Greg Smith wrote about this conflict, pointing out that other acclaimed writers (Shakespeare for instance) were considered mere pop culture in their own time. Smith also believes that King's reputation as a "bad writer" in critical circles partially comes from the many films adapted from his work. Rather than focus on the social commentary and literary qualities of his work, perhaps his critics are simply targeting the genre with which he's associated?
When I eventually came back to Uncle Stevie, it was because of a professor named Robert Conner who recognized King's legitimacy. Conner taught a rousing elective my last year at school on the history of horror literature. There I re-learned the aesthetic value of King amidst other horror luminaries like H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe. A few months after that class I went to a Chuck Palahniuk reading where he expressed his envy over King's ability to form "the perfect sentence." Through that year I learned to love King's novels again, now for both their entertainment and their craft. Slowly, Uncle Stevie renewed my enthusiasm for writing. In fact, I think it's safe to say I wouldn't be a paid writer today if it weren't for him.
When you Google "Stephen King" and "genius" together, along with a choice quote of his about teachers, you'll find several forums debating whether he's a genius or a hack. By now you know where I stand in that argument. He's a whip smart, relentless storyteller and an inspiring man-of-letters. And amidst all his vampires, ax murderers and shape shifting clowns, Uncle Stevie taught me how to be both a better reader and think critically about the difference between right and wrong.
Thanks old friend. I'm looking forward to more.
Lots more information
- Chandler, Kelly. "Reading relationships: parents, adolescents and popular fiction by Stephen King." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. Vol. 43. No. 2. Pages 228-239. 1999.
- Chandler, Kelly. "Rethinking the reading-writing workshop: tensions and negotiations between a Stephen King reader and her teacher." Reading Research & Instruction. Vol. 39. No. 2. Pages. 135-159. 2000.
- Douthat, Ross Gregory. "Stephen King's American apocalypse." First Things. Vol. 170. Pages. 14-19. 2007.
- Dymond, Erica Joan. "From the present to the past: an exploration of family dynamics in Stephen King's Pet Sematary." Journal of Popular Culture. Vol. 46. No. 4. Pages 789-810. 2013.
- Magistrate, Tony. "Stephen King: The Second Decade." Twayne. 1992.
- McAleer, Patrick. "I have the whole world in my hands... now what? Power, control, responsibility and the baby boomers in Stephen King's fiction." Journal of Popular Culture. Vol. 44. No. 6. Pages: 1209-1227. 2011.
- Smith, Greg. "The literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries? Academics, moralists and the Stephen King phenomenon." Midwest Quarterly. Vol. 43. No. 4. Page 329- . 2002.
- Vehar, Gary. "Stephen King: Chronicling the Boomer Generation." Lighthouse (Stephen King Special Issue #1). Vol. 4. Pages 8-14. 2005.