A couple of weeks ago, Dwight Allen (a writer previously unknown to me) published a new critique of Stephen King in the Los Angeles Review of Books. This morning, Sarah Langan published a rebuttal in Salon. (I am indeed familiar with the talented Ms. Langan, but have always been troubled by her tendency in interviews to make a point of disapproving of flirting and drinking at horror conventions. [Flirting and drinking are, of course, the BEST PART of horror conventions.]) Though they assume contrary positions, both of these articles make clear that Stephen King criticism is still hamstrung by a uniquely American inability to discuss social class.
In his scathing dismissal of King, Allen seems to use every euphemism for “lower class” or “working class” he can think of, without actually coming out and saying the words. Langan likewise avoids the “c-word” as she defends King. I do not think this is a coincidence. It has been the project of almost every critic who wrestles with King to attempt to criticize (or defend) him without overtly talking about class.
I do not believe this is possible to do.
Unlike British people—or, indeed, most of the world—Americans do not like to acknowledge that class sensibilities exist. We will readily identify differences along political and geographical lines (they are, often, the same thing), but we balk at designating certain echelons of our society as “upper class” “working class” or even “lower class.” This is what creates frustration when critics try to discuss the literary merits of Stephen King. That’s because the very thing that can be offputting about King is that he is—more than occasionally—not classy.
And I can’t believe nobody talks about this! It’s so, so obvious!
Here’s an example. In King’s most recent short story collection, Full Dark, No Stars (which won the Stoker Award for Best Fiction Collection last year), we encounter the following admonition to rural paramours (which I excerpt here under the guidelines of fair use):
…she said: “Just make sure when you’re lying down with her in the corn or behind the barn, you’re a no-poke.” She made her free hand into a fist, poked out the middle finger, then used it to tap a circle around her crotch: left thigh, right thigh, right belly, navel, left belly, back again to the left thigh. “Explore all you like, and rub around it with your Johnny Mac until it feels good and spits up, but stay out of the home place lest you find yourself locked in for life, just like your mummer and daddy.”
In this otherwise sublime and effective tale of supernatural madness (which, incidentally, got my vote for the Stoker, and is worth your time to read), we encounter passages (like this) that make us—some of us, anyway—wince. Why?
The answer is class.
What we—as good Americans—will not allow ourselves to acknowledge is that the above passage is a profoundly low-class way of talking about sex (or having your characters talk about sex). We feel sure that an upper-class/educated-class/literary-class writer would have found an elegant and tactful way of describing barnyard frottage. (In her defense of King, Langan allows that she is “sometimes embarrassed” for King because his work can be ”rife with sentimentality.” I think she is using high-context language to mean ”sometimes low class.”)
King’s writing frustrates mainstream literary critics because it shifts from high-class to low-class and back again. It moves from highbrow literary style to rude airport potboiler on a single page. The “lit crit” conclusion to be derived from all this is simple enough, but I have never seen it articulated anywhere. That is, Stephen King doesn’t care about social class in narrative voice.
Though he has identified himself as a “redneck” in moments of (false?) humility, King is clearly capable of writing for audiences with upper-class sensibilities when he wants to. He just doesn’t always want to. Sure, when he’s in the mood, King can limn with sublimity and artfulness a world that feels “right” and “comfortable” even to those with a professional investment in being a part of the lettered elite (like Mr. Allen). But my suspicion is that—for King—that’s not the point. That’s not why he sits down to write.
The “Constant Reader(s)”—whom King addresses in so many of his introductions and afterwords—do not read King because his novels will jive with the mores of their social caste. Rather, they read him for the joy of reading. For the love of a good scare. For the pleasure of meeting a character or situation to whom they can relate. They read Stephen King because he says: “I will take you somewhere strange and amazing and horrible and wonderful (…and I may or may not be classy about it).”
King’s work reliably and regularly brings these things to millions of people. What flummoxes critics is that it does so without consistent fealty to a particular set of narrative norms. But this “eccentricity” is not a good reason to dismiss King’s writing. Doing so would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
My favorite writer is H.P. Lovecraft. (He is also one of King’s favorites.) For many years, Lovecraft’s work was not deemed worthy of academic consideration. During my lifetime, I have experienced the joy of watching that fact change, and seeing academics accept him—some, grudgingly—as worthy of a place in the canon. I remember professors I had in college who seemed to turn up their noses at Lovecraft. Now they have to teach him. It makes me feel like a civil rights activist who gets to watch the silently fuming racists as the first nonwhite genially strolls the grounds of their country club.
The literary canon is not as fixed as you may have been given to believe. Writers kept out by a variety of prejudices in their own lifetimes can be admitted by subsequent generations. And contemporary canonical writers can be “de-Nortoned” with a frequency that many find alarming. (Ask an MFA poet what I am talking about.)
I wonder if, in 100 years’ time, literature students speaking of our era may head-scratchingly ask: “What did they have against Stephen King, again?” (The answer, incidentally, will be “class.”)