On Tuesday evening, my girlfriend and I burst into an auditorium stuffed with fans of Stephen King and tried to not to vomit our respective portions of a recent tandoori dinner. Our heaving breaths and panicked arrival were soon forgotten, however, as Stephen King took to the stage. He’s a lanky, stooped guy with black hair that curls at the neck. T-shirt: blood red. Boots: Standard issue desert infantry (in support of American soldiers serving in the Middle Eastern Theatre). Sense of humour: bone dry. He speaks in a flattish accent and you could drive a coach and horses through the gaps between his words.
The venue was huge. The crowd huger. Two grand? Three? Low-flying aircraft rattled our dentistry; King quipped that each aircraft was a great mangle of steel and gasoline, and it would not be impossible for one to drop from the sky and plummet through the heart of Battersea. “You all should think about that.” Nervous laughter.
King spoke to the (also nervous) interviewer about his writing career; his alcoholism; the bout of pneumonia that brought on Lisey’s Story, his latest book; the relationship between the real world and its fictional counterpart; and, to finish, he read some unremarkable sections of his new book. Half the audience had got to their feet before he finished answering his last question – they were busting to join the queue for signing. It looked about two hours long, so my girlfriend and I went to the pub.
On my interpretation, Stephen King sees the Critic as the Devil on his shoulder that just won’t shoo. Time and again, his poor critical reception provided a subtext to answers; otherwise his references to the critics were overt. It’s easy to see his point. King has received few literary honours in his long and prodigious career. His Distinguished Contribution to American Letters is the exception that proves the rule. Why? Difficult to say. His work is visceral – but that’s cool, because books are emotional journeys. His prose is easy on the eye – no problem, Hemingway got there first and bought the T-shirt. I think that his poor critical reception stems from a combination of factors: the horror genre; the popular success; the lack of substantive depth (how much extra would you get from a King novel on second reading?); the faith in narrative clarity; certainly the prose style with its seemingly-effortless appropriation of popular culture and its free use of cliche.
Let me place my cards on the table. I think Stephen King is nothing less than one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. He does suffer from Beatles’s White Album syndrome, where he could be more picky about what he chooses to publish, but…this is the guy who wrote The Stand; The Dead Zone; The Shining; Dolores Claiborne; Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. These aren’t great literary works, but I regard them as great books (or novellas).
So should his latest, Lisey’s Story, be left on the cutting floor or stacked in the window of your local Waterstone’s? Well, I’m half way through. The prose style is cliche-ridden; the story straightforward (I can guess the rest of the book and don’t expect to be too wrong). Overall, it just about hangs together. I’d put it in the same category as Rose Madder, Insomnia, and The Tommyknockers. It’s no classic.
Overall, an interesting occasion. It was staged like a rock concert but, in the end, it’s a bloke reading. Special, though. One doesn’t get to see Stephen King in person too often (in the UK). Yeah, I’d go again.
Thanks to Watersone’s and The Times for organising it. Next time, some proper signs so us country bumpkins, who like to walk, can actually find the venue in time.
There’s a podcast of the evening.
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