Happy Birthday, Stephen King — Writing Instructor Extraordinaire

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Image: Pinguino (via Wikipedia)

I see that GeekDad’s Matt Blum is again wishing Stephen King a happy birthday, along with many other notables. But I think Blum is giving King short shrift by describing him as “one of the most successful authors of all time” — the implication being “he’s popular but not my cup of tea.” I’d like to offer my own take on King’s accomplishments.

For a long time, I was a literary snob. When I realized I was never going to be able to read everything I wanted to, I decided to cut out the junk and only read “good books.” And I have read a lot of great books in the years since.

But around about the time my boys got old enough to be interested in scary stories, I made a startling discovery about myself — I’ve read an AWFUL lot of Stephen King.

I’m not even counting just the stories I know from the movie versions. Turns out, I’ve managed to read those in book form too. Without ever meaning too, I have become a Stephen King fan. Here’s just a sampling of the King works I’ve read:

Now, in order to save my reputation, I am going to pull that old excuse: it’s educational for the kids. We listen to a lot of audiobooks in the car. And I’ve found that Stephen King books work for me (not too involved or flowery to understand with only half an ear) and the kids (not too babyish or boring). King’s book On Writing is widely admired by aspiring authors as a guide to what it really takes to create books for a living. But beyond that, we also listen to A LOT of King’s short stories. For the car, they’re perfect, because we don’t have to worry that we’ll reach our destination with several hours to go on the story. By now, we’ve listened to so many that we have started to become scholarly experts on the short fiction of Stephen King.

I’ve always said that I became a journalist by reading the (now defunct) New York Newsday. Every day, they ran an update on the top story of the moment (at the time, the Central Park Jogger). And after a while, without meaning too, I began to see how a news story is put together, by noticing what changed (and how) and what stayed the same, day after day. The same process is at work with my family’s critical analysis of Stephen King. Whether consciously or not, King can be counted on to pace his stories in a similar way. Here’s where the rescuer gets killed (think Scatman Crothers in The Shining); and here’s where we think the story’s over, but one more scare is still to come (think Carrie’s hand in the graveyard).

In a nutshell, this is our analysis: King’s earliest stories are shining examples of pulp fiction — short, suspenseful, and great at sucking the reader in. At the start of his career King still felt that he had something to prove. More recently, King has been dabbling in short works — except that he’s gotten a little flabby. His stories go on and on, well past the point where there’s any suspense left. That woman who left her husband, went out for a run from her dad’s beach house, and is now duct-taped to a crazy neighbor’s kitchen chair? Let her go already, she’s suffered enough. (And so have we.) If you’re sitting in the car listening to them (and hence can’t easily skip ahead), it’s like being stuck in traffic when you can see your destination up ahead. We suspect that, famous as he is, no one wants to edit his stuff anymore. (At least, that’s our theory; I thought the same about J.K Rowling halfway through the Harry Potter series as well.)

There are other Language Arts lessons to be learned from King’s fiction as well. Although he certainly has the street cred, he has never really been able to render everyday dialogue convincingly. It’s almost deliberate, the way he makes up sayings that are always just a little off. His little details, meant to convey verisimilitude (about the only thing I remember from high school English), instead gets trapped in its own kind of “uncanny valley” — just right enough to make you uncomfortably aware of how wrong it is.

For the kids and me, the work of Stephen King isn’t just a terrific way to pass the time; they’re great lessons in how to write fiction. So Happy Birthday, Stephen King! Your fans, unwitting or not, salute you!

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