On Stephen King’s On Writing
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 10/10/03
A couple of
weeks ago the wife came home from Barnes & Noble with several
remaindered books. 1 of them was the titular book, which she read (in her
efforts to become more pop-savvy, if not a better writer) & thought was
good. She then wanted me to read it & review it. I do not share Jess’s
enthusiasm for the book. Let’s face it- SK is known as a pulp writer for a
reason: he is a pulp writer. Does that mean he’s the worst writer out there?
No. But I believe, once dead, his stuff will slip into the cracks & his name
will be as recognizable as some earlier forgotten pulp novelists he names in
this book, yet whose names I still forget. In short, Edgar Rice Burroughs he’s
not. But his website is cool: www.stephenking.com.
On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft (OW) is the 5th SK book I’ve read in my life. In the late 1970s I read Carrie- I believe for a Junior High book report. Even then I knew it was not good. I ripped it & got a B+, I believe. In the early 1980s I read Christine- about the haunted car, & then either The Shining, The Dead Zone, or Cujo- I can’t recall which 1 because I’ve seen all 3 films. This lack of differentiating is not due to my known penchant for fluidic memory, rather that the 3 books are so dull that my mind has no solid hooks by which to recall which were read & which were merely viewed. In the mid-1990s I read The Stand, which was reprinted after the TV miniseries of it came out, on lunch over a few weeks period- I worked at a magazine & paperback book distributorship. I recall it was 1200+ pages long & dull as shit, as well as straining so hard to be relevant & ‘deep’. War & Peace is about the same length, & I similarly don’t remember much about it, save there was war & then peace. But that overrated book was worlds better than The Stand- a bad book made all the worse by pretensions of philosophic & religious ‘deep thought’.
Now SK fans might argue- they were all early works, he’s become a master now. I might buy that were OW an even mildly diverting book. It’s not. Another canard the SK fanatics claim is that his works are deeply symbolic. SK leads the dummies on by claiming in OW that John Coffey- the main character in The Green Mile- shares initials with guess who? But just about any written work can be shown to be templated against some older, better forerunner. So? Joseph Campbell (may his tribe decrease!) grew phat for decades scamming gullible idiots with the idea that even the most banal works of art had depths that the stupid layety could not understand. Don’t get me wrong- the layety ain’t the best judges for a lot, but the layety has a few keen minds scattered amongst all the inbred goat fondlers out there. I’m 1 of them, though, & I shall be the tyke that leads the proverbially them.
This is not to say that OW is without virtues. SK does actually name names- works & writers he deems ‘bad’. But it kind of loses any sting when the writer calling someone bad is Stephen King. It’s sort of the opposite of being called a ‘great writer’ by Larry King! Who can or will take the posit seriously?
On to the book- & I will try to breeze through it, because it is really slight. 1st off- SK seems like a really nice, plainspoken guy. He’s someone I’d like to hang with. He’s obviously well-read & quite intelligent. Of the books I’ve read, & those others I’ve seen the films of (ala Stand By Me, based on his well-received short story The Body- & non-horror short stories seem to be SK’s fans favorites to hold up for their literary worth. Sorry, I’ve read none.) there are alot of truly good ideas. But SK’s output seems pedal to the metal to produce quantity over quality. Were I a pal I’d say to relax the output & cultivate each tale more. In short, it’s obvious SK has never had a good editor- 1 who could tell him what directions to expound on & what to trim. To me SK is writing’s Madonna- someone who is a so-so talent, whose never had his real strengths realized, but has been so pop successful & good at marketing, that it does not matter. Besides, both Madonna & SK seem like cool enough people that you don’t begrudge them their successes. SK, for 1, has given back millions of dollars to his local community- who can argue with results like that? On a personal level I cannot- but as an artist & critic I must.
Given OW’s title I’d hoped it might resemble Strunk & White’s The Elements Of Style, a book SK relentlessly references. No such luck. Instead we get a banal extended prologue about SK’s life. You know whose biography I recalled whilst reading this part? Not Ernest Hemingway or even Anais Nin- but radio shock jock Howard Stern. Don’t get me wrong- HS is 1 of the 3 or 4 best comic minds of the last 50 years; but the writing & recollections of SK were so banal & so seeming to strive for relevance that I just wanted to get on to the parts about writing, itself! OK, so SK’s cruel babysitter used to pin him down & fart on his face, he needed his eardrum painfully lanced several times as a child, & SK really loves his wife. Fine- but you sum them up in a paragraph- 1 for each, at most, unless there truly is more. The only good thing about this section is that SK, thankfully, did not portray himself as a victim.
As for the actual writing advice- SK generally thinks that what works for him will work for all. He does not hide his biases- he states them. He prefers short or simple words, & short direct sentences. He gives 3 examples of bad writing- I’ll quote the shortest:
In some [of the cups] there was no evidence whatever that anything had been planted; in others, wilted brown stalks gave testimony to some inscrutable depredation. -T. Coraghessan Boyle, Budding Prospects
I assume SK objects to the last 2 words. But, is ‘inscrutable depredation’ that highfalutin’? I don’t think so. I’ve scanned some TCB novels & have not been impressed- but to say this example is not good writing is silly- where’s the context? Even worse is this snip he uses to show off ‘good writing’:
This is what happened. -Douglas Fairbairn, Shoot
serious- he really does hold up this small sentence as good for it’s
simplicity. I’ll bet you everything I own or will ever earn that I can find a
simpler sentence in TCB’s novel. Bad excerption practices. Flaw #1.
Here’s another example of good writing (says SK), from Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire Of The Vanities:
“Egggh, whaddaya? Whaddaya want
“Here come Hymie!”
“Unnh! Unnnh! Unnnhh!”
“Chew my willie, Yo’ Honor.”
“Yeggghhh, fuck you, too, man!”
Elmore Leonard are held up as good for using street slang & phonetically
rendered speech. But, almost all writers do. They may do so more, but writing is
situational. People have long criticized Woody Allen’s filmic WASP characters
as being too heady & unrealistic in their dialogue. But those critics have
obviously never been to a Long Island Republican’s dinner party, lest they
would know how exquisitely attuned to such BS WA is. Wolfe & Leonard cannot
do that sort of writing, but anyone can render phonetic street slang. &
that’s the point- SK points to easy tricks that writers he ‘likes’
perform, rather than getting into the true nuts & bolts of writing-
especially the more difficult sorts. Yes, he tries to occasionally dissect a
sentence- in this section it’s a John Steinbeck 1, but mostly SK is too intent
on justifying his biases, rather than explication. Better than comparing
disparate writers he might have compared writers with similar styles, but
differing results- say, the dense prose of a Herman Hesse (whose prose poetry is
the equal or superior of a James Joyce) to the dense prose of an Ayn Rand (whose
prose seems hewn from granite, & thuds accordingly). But to compare Herman
Hesse to Bret Harte (or T.C. Boyle to John Steinbeck, as SK does) is silly.
To SK ‘plain & direct’ speech is the best for writing; he also believes in a modified Ginsbergian ‘1st thought, best thought’. I did say the man needed a good editor, didn’t I? SK also extols the ‘meaning’ of words- not their definition, per se, but their need to reflect what the writer means to say. Well, yeah. But, on the same tack meaning (or to be fancy- intent) means (no pun intended) nothing. Say the damned thing & it’ll find its own meaning- even if it’s not what was originally intended. Often it might be better & come from a better subconscious place. To his credit SK does echo 1 of my defining ideas about writing: ‘To be a good writer 1 must learn all the rules of writing; to be a great writer 1 must unlearn those same rules.’ Another pet peeve of SK’s is the passive voice. As example he reviles a sentence like ‘The meeting will be held at seven o’clock.’ but reveres its cousin ‘The meeting’s at seven.’ Perhaps the Viagra had not worn off when SK wrote that chapter but ‘rules’ like this are virtually worthless since they are nothing but the personal biases of an individual. & if that individual is as mediocre as SK, can that really be that good a bit of advice? Both sentences are doable in 99% of the situations they could be inserted into. The other 1%? That’s why they are different in intonation! Similar nonsense is propounded in SK’s admonitions against adverbs- but, again, it depends on the context. Similarly SK chimes that only the word said is good for dialogue attribution. & he chimes it sillily, to boot! He similarly waxes silly on the possessive s, g-less gerunds, sentence fragments, plot development vs. organic story growth, character dialogue, theme, revision, & the need for ‘truthfulness’ in character dialogue. I’ll end that here. No need to proceed further. Anytime an ‘artist’ brings up ‘truth’ in art is as good a time as any to pull the plug. Simply put, we all have peeves & such- I use ampersands (&) instead of the word and in my prose, & I prefer the world alot to be spelled as 1 word, not 2- a lot. So? It won’t help you to follow my literary tics & such. The book then concludes with SK on his well-known turn as victim of a hit & run, some sample editing he did, & a list of books he’s read recently.
That’s about it. Is OW the worst book on writing ever written? Not as long as poetaster June Jordan’s Poetry For The People remains in true poets’ nightmares. But, after all, this is still Stephen King. & he’s writing about writing. Are you scared yet?
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