A Defense of Stephen King, Master of the Decisive Moment

The Dark Tower series author knows how to write about turning points.

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Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books they're having an argument about Stephen King. Dwight Allen leads for the prosecution; Sarah Langan replies for the defense. Though like Langan I am absolute for acquittal, I want to defend King on other grounds than hers. Stephen King, like most of the greats of what tends to be called "genre fiction," is a writer of the "decisive moment."

Reading King, Dwight Allen sees none of the virtues that he most admires in fiction. King's characters are "blandly predictable," "cut from the same generic cloth," "thin, sentimental figures who exist to be buffeted about in the storm of plot"; the prose is "consistently dull," "so weak--so pat, so lazy." Allen places a particular value on beauty and precision of language: "Among the things I hope for when I open a book of fiction is that each sentence I read will be right and true and beautiful, that the particular music of those sentences will bring me a pleasure I wouldn't be able to find the exact equivalent of in another writer"--and he finds none of this in King's fiction.

These are plausible charges, though other parts of the essay make me think that Allen is just not going to give King a fair chance: He complains about Christine that "the observations about life in a western Pennsylvania town in the late seventies were unremarkable [as compared to, say, the meticulously observed, lovingly detailed eastern Pennsylvania suburban landscape in Updike's Rabbit novels]"; but then about 11/22/63 he complains that "the period detail is slathered thickly on, as if to hide some vacancy." So both the presence and absence of contextual detail are equally damning. This could of course be true, given that he's describing novels separated by decades of King's career, but it has a "Heads I win, tails you lose" ring to it.

In any event, Langan comes to King's defense by celebrating rather than damning King's way with characterization--"We never forget his characters. They live, they breathe"--and by arguing that the best of his work is "resonant," by which she means "It's about soul. Our American soul, perfectly expressed and challenged and loved by the American icon that is Stephen King."

But I don't think "resonance" is a sufficiently precise term to help us. All poems and stories and songs resonate with something--but not all resonate with the same things or in the same ways. Allen's love for the beautiful language he finds in literary fiction is important here, because often what such language does is to illuminate the everyday. Consider this luminous moment from Marilynne Robinson's Gilead:

As I was walking up to the church this morning, I passed that row of big oaks by the war memorial--if you remember them--and I thought of another morning, fall a year or two ago, when they were dropping their acorns thick as hail almost. There was all sorts of thrashing in the leaves and there were acorns hitting the pavement so hard they'd fly past my head. All this in the dark, of course. I remember a slice of moon, no more than that. It was a very clear night, or morning, very still, and then there was such energy in the things transpiring among those trees, like a storm, like travail. I stood there a little out of range, and I thought, It is all still new to me. I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can still astonish me.

This is the kind of thing that, I take it, Dwight Allen loves, and I love it too: it shines a gracious and graceful light on the most ordinary of things, revealing to us the beauty that we rarely notice. Literary fiction does other things too, of course, but much of the best of it does this: It makes us see meaning, value, and loveliness--and sometimes emptiness and pain--in places where most of the time we don't see anything at all. Or we see but we don't truly perceive.

A writer like Stephen King, in contrast, is less interested in illuminating the everyday than in placing his characters in extraordinary and absolutely decisive moments. The beauty and value of the ordinary don't really apply when the family dog is going on a homicidal rampage. Or, to take a less caricatured example, we might consider the scene in The Stand when old Mother Abigail staggers back from a devastating but epiphanic experience in the wilderness to give to her followers a message from God -- and not just a message, but a command. Reactions to her announcement vary: some believe her wholly; some trust her but doubt the existence or the goodness of the God in whose name she speaks; some mistrust, resist, or even hate her. But though King registers these nuances of response, he also makes it clear that at this crux in the community's history--in human history--they don't matter much. Those to whom she has addressed her word of command must obey, or refuse. That is the choice facing them. Nothing else matters. Everything hangs on that decision.

What we call "genre fiction"--like Ursula LeGuin I think the term useless but can't quite get beyond it yet--tends to focus on moments like that. It strips away the usual and familiar contexts of our lives and replaces them with radically simplified environments: a small crew on a spaceship, a detective trying to stop a killer before he can reach another victim, a lawman in a Western town confronting a lawless gang, a superhero trying to track down a psychopathic criminal mastermind bent on destroying a whole city. It does this kind of thing in the belief, which is as fully justified as the belief that we lose sight of both the pain and the beauty of our daily lives, that such pared-down and dramatically focused moments are revelatory. They tell the characters who they really are, or what in the course of life they have become. We tend to identify with those characters and in so doing try to learn something about ourselves, by proxy if not directly.

It is often said that such situations are unrealistic. This is incorrect; it conflates the unrealistic with the uncommon. People do confront such utterly decisive moments: A theater full of people in Aurora, Colorado confronted one quite recently, and some of them had only an instant to decide whether to save their own lives or protect the ones they loved. It doesn't get any more real that that. We can argue about whether Stephen King writes this kind of story well; but what's not really arguable, I think, is that such tales are worth writing and worth reading, even if beauty of language and subtlety of characterization get sacrificed along the way. Not all stories have to do the same things.

UPDATE: I wish I had seen this essay by Colin Dickey before I wrote my post.