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The Pop-Off King

Though dancers occasionally kick one another, writers are alone among artists in using their craft to attack each other. A report on Stephen King’s new decision to join the vipers.

We’ll start with a quiz.

Which of the following statements were made by Larry King in his latest internet feature, and which were made by Stephen King in his debut column in the August 8 Entertainment Weekly?

  1. Loved T3. Arnold is still the perfect machine.
  2. Jack Nicholson is a fine actor and a funny man.
  3. I love the Jayhawks.
  4. I’m in a major league baseball fantasy group and I proud [sic] to say my team is in the lead.
  5. Go to your nearest movie emporium and by all means see Seabiscuit, a terrific movie about a great horse.
  6. If you haven’t read Stewart O’Nan, Peter Robinson (the Alan Banks Mysteries), Peter Abrahams, or the early novels of Dennis Lehane, you have some catching up to do.
  7. I think Elmore Leonard is the great American writer…but that he was a lot better 10 years ago.
  8. Lance Armstrong continues to amaze me.
  9. I love Eminem…because he still admits that underneath it all, there is a person named Marshall Mathers.
  10. I’m a big fan of Steve Garvey.

Any of them could be Larry’s, but 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, and 9 are all from “The Pop of King,” the collection of musings from Maine’s Michener of the Macabre, now featured monthly on Entertainment Weekly’s back page.

Over the years, I’ve defended Stephen King against writer friends who say they don’t read him or who dismiss him as a “writer of plots.” Though I haven’t read every book the man’s churned out (and I’ve cracked very few of his recent efforts), I have a lot of respect for at least six of his novels: Misery, It, The Stand, Bag of Bones, Salem’s Lot, The Shining. After the scary stuff, which is great fun, I think he is especially insightful with characters that are writers.

Last Christmas, I received his post-accident, non-fiction discursive, On Writing, as a gift. The memoir-ish parts were entertaining and I found his reading list interesting as well: his taste in literature is solid and unpretentious. He lives in a small town, has been married to the same woman since the first Lynyrd Skynyrd album, and plays rock music for fun with no Dogstar delusions about his ability. When I turned the last page, I decided I liked him, not that he should care.

A few months ago, Entertainment Weekly asked King to review the latest Harry Potter and he did so with enthusiasm for both the assignment and the book. EW was so pleased with the result they asked if he would pen a monthly column on pop culture. King, wealthy, bored, and apparently without TiVo, said, “Why not?” So far so good.

Then he went and turned in the first one.

Since these columns will deal mostly with popular culture—and what else would a magazine called Entertainment Weekly deal with?—you have a right to know where I stand on that broad and sometimes troubling subject.

OK. Let’s talk about movies. He liked 28 Days Later. That seems relevant. Then:

Hated Antwone Fisher; ditto The Life of David Gale. Don’t tell me the former is better than the latter and don’t throw a bunch of sentimental tripe at me and call it social commentary.

Fine. I didn’t see either of them. But Antwone Fisher came out in January and David Gale was in and out of theaters a month later. As you note, Stephen, the magazine is called Entertainment Weekly—you can’t wait for a movie to play at the Bangor Dollar Cinema before you review it. (Hmm. I suppose that’s a little snarky of me to say. I mean Antwone Fisher just came out on DVD… May 20. OK, maybe not.)

King next turns his pen on popular music: AC/D.C. is good. Celine Dion is bad. Artists who use only one name are to be spurned. (One more aside to Stephen: Beyoncé’s last name is Knowles and she uses it all the time. I hardly think it’s fair to call her out because her fans don’t always specify which of our many Beyoncés they’re talking about).

But I really don’t mind if King wants to spout off about Adam Sandler or Jewel or Ashanti or Darryl Worley. (Although, Darryl Worley? Seriously, who cares?) My real concern begins and ends with the final section on books:

I like Donna Tartt, but think The Little Friend, with its crazy Southern gothic overtones, is far better than the measured pretension of The Secret History.

This is an odd comment. Why not say he enjoyed The Little Friend and leave it at that? Why is it necessary to take a shot at Tartt’s ten-year-old first novel? The thousands of readers who enjoyed The Secret History shouldn’t have to apologize for that any more than should the Hollywood producers who promised a great movie could be made from Christine. And Cujo. And Firestarter. And Pet Sematary. And Needful Things. And Thinner. And Tommyknockers. And Dreamcatcher.

I believe that 70 percent of the fiction and nonfiction best-seller list is dreck, and that The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, stands as a prime example. I also believe that a book that sells a million copies—as The Dogs of Babel, by Colleen Parkhurst, may eventually do—is not automatically trash.

That last point must be important to him. He’s been dogged throughout his career by exactly that assumption. But in the sentence preceding it he makes the same dumb generalization. Seventy-percent of the best-seller list is dreck? Which list? When? This week? Last month? Or does he assert this as a physical constant? King’s written something like 40 novels, virtually all of them best sellers. Perhaps he’d like to tell us which 28 aren’t worth reading, or is that supposed to be obvious?

Stephen King’s success in adult fiction is singular. Except for J.K. Rowling, no other writer, not even those who can guarantee their latest book will open at number one, are even caddies in his club. When Hillary and Norgay reached the summit of Everest, they didn’t start rolling boulders down the sides of the mountain. It’s hard to understand why King, at this stage in his career, would seek out such a forum and use it as base camp for attacking other writers. I don’t give two hoots about ballet, but I’d be disappointed if Baryshnikov had a column in Demi-Plié Weekly in which he trashed modern dancers. Or if Spielberg, rather than championing the films he loved, elbowed onstage with Ebert and Roeper every week to crap all over the oeuvre of Dennis Dugan. Literature is the only art form where artists routinely get paid to trash each other’s work in public and I don’t think most writers view this as a problem. Which is the problem.

This isn’t about honesty, either. If, on his talk show, Larry King asked Stephen King what he thought of The Da Vinci Code, I wouldn’t fault him for saying, “Frankly, Lar, it sucked like Celine Dion performing The Hanukah Song.” But King volunteering to hurl lightning bolts at mortal writers from the top of Olympus is like Johnny Carson asking for a monthly segment on Entertainment Tonight to make fun of Craig Kilborn.

In 1980, science fiction writer Spider Robinson wrote a review of The Stand for Analog Magazine. Robinson opened his attack by scoffing at King’s success:

In our genre, Robert Heinlein’s half-million-dollars-over-five-years is an all-time record advance; a few years ago, King signed a five-book contract for a million each.

A long-time Heinlein apologist, Robinson’s point is clear: The difference between Heinlein’s paycheck and King’s is that Heinlein earned his 500K.

Robinson brusquely details the thematic issues he has with The Stand (misinterpreting the book in the process, I think) then wraps it up with this:

There is no chance this review can affect the sales of The Stand; it has sold millions of copies as I write. I urge you to buy a copy—so that you will be in a position to intelligently denounce it to your friends and acquaintances who’ve read it. In fact, denounce it to strangers on streetcorners. I do. For those of us who are trying to get the world smarter and saner, this is the enemy right here.

I’m sorry but I find writers, especially sci-fi and horror writers, “denouncing” each other distasteful, or I would if it weren’t so ridiculous. But Spider Robinson, a genre writer with a sizable cult following, taking shots at the most popular writer in the world is not as unpleasant as the most popular writer in the world taking shots at Spider Robinson, Or Donna Tartt. Or Dan Brown.

At the end of his column, King suggests his efforts for EW “may make you angry.” He hasn’t made me angry. He hasn’t taught me any lessons about grace, either.