I want to write about the amazing books I've read lately.
I want to tell you how The Turn of the Screw read quite like you'd expect a ghost story from 1898 to read. How I was struck by the abrupt ending. How the ambiguity that permeated the story is just shy of frustrating.
I want to tell you how Maurice Manning's second poetry collection, A Companion for Owls is my all-time favorite book of poems now, and one of my favorite books ever. I want to tell you why…there are so many reasons.
And I fully intend on doing all that. But after spending my Saturday devouring Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, I can't seem to think of anything else.
I remember when I disdained King years ago, as a "popular" author (god forbid) whose prolific habits clearly indicated that his storytelling ability was all formula and shock. And quite possibly he was a sick man, for thinking up such creepy stuff.
I sounded disturbingly like Harold Bloom, who, on the occasion of King winning the Lifetime Acheivment Award from the National Book Award people, stuffily pronounced that:
"(King) is a man who writes what used to be called penny dreadfuls. That they could believe that there is any literary value there or any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy."
Yikes. And to think I was nodding in agreement when I hadn't even deigned to read a Stephen King novel or story.
Then, finally, I did.
It was The Shining, which I picked up out of curiosity, after falling in love with movie. And I instantly swallowed all the baseless, snobbish Harold Bloom-esque junk I once spilled.
The Shining is much better than its film version (which, again, I love). Particularly, there's a scene in the novel where Jack witnesses the living past in the hotel's ballroom–dressed-up rich people chattering and drinking and dancing, glorying in themselves. One man, desperately playing to their dark amusement, playacts as a lapdog. It's a sick and strange scene that reveals the insight and ambiguity King's capable of. It's stayed with me. I began to think that maybe King really was closer to what the National Book Award people said upon recognizing King's work:
"Stephen King’s writing is securely rooted in the great American tradition that glorifies spirit-of-place and the abiding power of narrative. He crafts stylish, mind-bending page-turners that contain profound moral truths – some beautiful, some harrowing – about our inner lives. This Award commemorates Mr. King’s well-earned place of distinction in the wide world of readers and book lovers of all ages."
So my admiration of Stephen King began.
It deepens with On Writing. It's a great book–partly on his life, partly on language, and wholly on how the two intersect. King is hilarious, imaginative … and his insane work ethic is evident on every page.
He's also got a finally tuned bullshit-detector, which charmed me right off. As he writes in the forward, on his impetus to write this book in the first place:
"If I was going to be presumptuous enough to tell people how to write, I felt there had to be a better reason than my popular success. Put another way, I didn't want to write a book, even a short one like this, that would leave me feeling like either a literary gasbag or a transcendental asshole. There enough of those books–and those writers–on the market already, thanks. "
But Amy (Tan) was right: nobody ever asks about the language (at book readings). They ask the DeLillos and the Updikes and the Styrons, but they don't ask popular novelists. Yet many of us proles also care about the language, in our humble way, and care passionately about the art and craft of telling stories on paper."
Midway through, I'm utterly absorbed in the man's life and work. And yes, it's translating into renewed fire in my own life and work.
A good way to spend a Saturday, yes?
By the way, until you get your hands on a copy of this book yourself, you might want to check out King's acceptance speech for that little Lifetime Achievement National Book Award thingy he pocketed a few years back. Like a lot of things written by him, it's good.