First you have to decide whether to listen to me or not: keep in mind, kemosabes, that Stephen King has sold 350 million novels, and I have sold 11.
So you are forewarned that size matters, and forearmed with no reason to really believe a nobody novelist like me. But for a writer -- any writer -- sales are ephemeral. The only thing that counts is the words on the page. They either live on... or die horribly, the way characters often do in a Stephen King novel.
So here we go, Trojans. Teaching a writing class last week, I went to the top of the bestseller lists and did a blind taste test of Stephen King's "Mr. Mercedes." Here's the third paragraph from the new novel:
"When Augie reached the top of the wide, steep drive leading to the big auditorium, he saw a cluster of at least two dozen people already waiting outside the rank of doors, some standing, most sitting. Posts strung with yellow DO NOT CROSS tape had been set up, creating a complicated passage that doubled back on itself, mazelike."
Surprise! I used this paragraph to highlight what I consider bad writing. Only later did I realize Stephen King makes these mistakes on purpose for reasons he explains in his how-to "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft." Give me a minute on the road with "Mr. Mercedes" and I'll explain.
Strike One: "a wide, steep drive leading to the big auditorium" is vague enough to mean almost anything and therefore means nothing. What's a big auditorium? What's a steep drive? And why bother with those generic, indistinct details to begin with on the first page of a novel?
Strike Two: what in the name of all that's scary is a "rank of doors"? Is it some kind of hierarchy or grading system or a band from the Sixties? I have no idea, and if you're honest, neither do you. It's a stinkeroo.
Strike three: "a complicated passage that doubled back on itself, mazelike." I immediately thought of Jack Nicholson in "The Shining," one of King's best concoctions, but this was not a maze at all. The "complicated passage," as King writes on, was designed "to cram as many people as possible into as small a space as possible," the way they do in "movie theaters and the bank."
In fact, the passage is not only not "mazelike" but almost exactly the opposite: a line, like the ones you see at airport security and DisneyWorld, that moves you to the front with no chance of losing yourself because you have no choice. The crammees are in a "cluster" to begin with, rendering the notion of a maze completely incoherent.
A day after the class, a student named Donna Davis gave me King's "On Writing," a book full of useful alarums and exhortations about the craft. In the memoir, King decries "lazy writing" and waxes on about "the power of compact, descriptive language."
"For me," King writes, "a good description usually consists of a few well-chosen details that will stand for everything else."
And this: "The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary."
And this: "If you want to be a successful writer, you must be able to describe it, and in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition."
Wide? Steep? Big? Doors mysteriously ranked? Mazelike non-maze? They prickle me not.
"It's also important to know what to describe," King writes about writing, "and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story...."
Within King's wide, steep discussion of writing there awaits an answer to the big riddle: the story is the only thing that matters. Not words--but story, story, story.
Storytelling "makes up for a great many stylistic faults, as the work of wooden-prose writers like Theodore Dreiser and Ayn Rand shows...."
In other words--and words are all we have as readers--Stephen King has decided that nothing should get in the way of the story. That means words become disposable, an inconvenience, and that throwaway lines are not always thrown away.
That's just wrong. And here's why.
Do you think the great painters didn't care about the paint in their work? Do you think they were willing to let an inferior brushstroke stand just so they could punch the time clock and go home?
Would a great director with final cut allow a bad edit--or the wrong music--to dilute his film?
Would a great composer let the wrong note stand to get on with his "main job."
No and no and absolutely not -- and we as art and movie and music lovers would see the problem immediately because these are mediums where the artist can't hide. The wrong note cries out for help.
Writers get a pass because -- I'm really not sure why writers get a pass: writing fiction is a textual, audible, and visual experience. If anything, the words matter more than paint or film or even music, because words are all we have as writers and readers. Words have many layers and levels of meaning and the writer needs to deploy them consciously. Every word matters in serious fiction.
This helps to explain why Stephen King does not always get the literary cred that he wants. He's a bestselling storyteller, but for a book to last "big auditoriums" and "mazelike" are just not going to cut it. His stories can be mind-blowing, but for me it takes movies like "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile" to bring his ideas to life. If you're going to write a book about the craft of writing your advice can't be to skip the details.
It hurts to say this because I love everything Stephen King stands for. I love that he's everyman. I love that he has a house next to his house this is stuffed with books--a library that he owns next door. I love that he gets $400 per week walking around money and that he "banks" what he doesn't spend. I love that he drove all the way from Down East to Burlington, Vermont, to watch the University of Maine's women's basketball team tangle with the University of Vermont Catamounts, a game I was broadcasting on radio. I love that he came back from a horrible accident after he was hit by a car when walking on a road. There is nothing not to like about Stephen King.
But I've never loved his writing, and now I know why. It's at least a small comfort to know that he has a reason for writing so badly on the first page of his new novel. Who has time these days to make sure every word counts?
In a way, you can't blame Stephen King for his shortcomings as a writer. Like his audience, he just wants to find out what happens next.