Wednesday, 11 January 2012

A Guilty Pleasure?

Amidst the usual news and nonsense on my Twitter feed today I stumbled across this post on the Los Angeles Times blog that reminded me of my third year English teacher.  

During a discussion of an upcoming assignment involving an extended reading report, he outlined the types of books that were acceptable and the type that were not.  Top of the list for unacceptable books was anything written by Stephen King. 

The objection, it seemed, was less to do with the issue of what is or isn’t age appropriate (and believe me the novel I eventually chose for my own report was much darker than any of the King novels I have since encountered) and more related to the “quality” of the work.

I recall that teacher’s words each and every time I pick up a Stephen King novel - and those occasions are not infrequent - and while I have never doubted his good intentions, and I can't help thinking it was just a little bit of snobbery.

In his article, David L. Ulin suggests that Stephen King is often “written off because he appeals to a popular audience.”  If the views of my former English teacher are anything to go by, he’s absolutely right.  The literary world fascinates me in that so many writers strive for commercial success yet when it is achieved they’re often berated for it.  That anyone could be “written off because he appeals to a popular audience” baffles me.

I am not completely ignorant of the reasons for such a view, and it’s true that I am an unabashed Stephen King fan so this ramble is as far from an unbiased point of view as you can possibly get.  It’s also true that I have no aspirations as a book critic – any reviews I offer on a subject are limited to “I liked it/I did not like it and here’s why,” but I confess, I just don’t get it. 

I’m long past counting the books I have read, and returning to a book for a second, third or fourth time (or tenth, eleventh, twelfth) is one of the great pleasures I take from reading. In spite of the spectre of third year English hovering over me, I often find it’s Stephen King’s books that I return to most often.  The reason is simple – I love a good story, and few people tell a story quite like Stephen King.

Some of my King collection

How many of us are afraid of clowns?  And how many of us are afraid of clowns because of Pennywise?  (Now personally I have no issue with clowns, but cornfields are entirely different matter…)

It’s too easy to cite the obvious though.  I could wax lyrical about the iconic King moments (I can practically hear my husband’s ‘don’t get her started’ now) but many have been transformed into cinematic images with varying success and are easy targets for dissenters.  The devil, literally in some cases, is instead in the detail.  When people ask me what I love about a Stephen King novel, that’s usually the answer.  

The detail that brings so many of the characters to life is enough to make the aspiring novelist in me sit down and weep.  I so rarely encounter a character in King’s work who doesn’t feel like a living, breathing person, such is the history and lifestyle crafted around them.  They are often intensely believable characters in unbelievable situations and his horror stories are all the more frightening for it.  Take Under the Dome – a  novel so richly detailed that the events of only a few days require 800 plus pages to unfold and not one of those pages seems superfluous, or The Stand, a genuinely epic novel that even when reading the uncut version I am still left wanting to know more. 

I started reading Needful Things on a flight to Prague and I remember frantically devouring as many pages as possible as the plane made its final descent, more than a little peeved that landing was interrupting my reading.

If I could turn out a novel even half as compelling I'd never complain about anything ever again.  Probably.

In summary, I like Stephen King novels, and that’s why.

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