I realized recently that I haven’t read a Stephen King novel in about ten years.
A fortuitous encounter with a copy of 11/22/63 at a thrift store recently inspired me to rectify that.
I used to read King religiously. In my teenage years he was my literary idol. Ever since my mom let me get a copy of Pet Cemetary when I was in the fourth grade (yes I started reading King in the fourth grade) I devoured as many of his books as I could. By the time I went off to college I had already read It, the Stand, Desperation, Insomnia, Bag of Bones, the first four Dark Tower novels, Four Past Midnight, Needful Things, the Tommyknockers, and many others. I continued to read him for awhile in college but becoming an English major and taking a job at a bookstore inspired me to expand my literary horizons a bit and I left King in the dust. Hence this was a long-delayed return to a writer who used to be very important to me.
What I was particularly interested in this time around was deciding what literary merit King actually has. In the chaotic, messy, excessively ideological and every once in a great while noble effort to try to expand, redefine and/or abolish the literary canon it has become commonplace even in the halls of academia to declare Stephen King a genius. It is a stance that I have rarely ever seen articulated or defended and in fact often seems to be inspired not by a love of King but by a fear of being labelled a snob, since even in the halls of academia it is disturbingly rare to ever encounter discussions that move beyond simplistic “with us or against us” false dichotomies (either you think King is a genius or you’re an elitist snob).
So at the risk of being labelled an elitist snob I am going to say that Stephen King is not a genius and he is not a great writer. In fact he’s pretty mediocre.
Now before I delve into the nitty-gritty of 11/22/63 I want to offer the following praise for the book: even though it is almost 850 pages long, I read the whole thing. This may seem like faint praise but anyone who knows my reading habits knows that I am an extremely fickle reader. Every book I read gets weighed against the thousand others I have on my shelf that I haven’t read yet and if a book fails at all to maintain my interest I won’t think twice about tossing it aside unfinished and moving on to the next book. So the fact that I actually stuck the book out for its entire length means something, especially given how long it was.
It does have an interesting premise: school teacher and aspiring novelist Jake Epping (check “troubled writer” off the list of Stephen King tropes) is let in on a secret by his friend Al Templeton, owner of a local diner whose store room has a portal that takes you back to 1958. Al, who is dying, asks Jake to take over a mission he was determined to see out: stop the Kennedy assassination from ever happening, a rather substantial request since this requires Jake to live in the past for five years before he can do anything about it. It’s a cool take on time travel and of the books King has published in the last ten years this one seems to have been particularly highly praised so I was intrigued enough to take it on.
With that said, I also can’t think of a single reason why the book needed to be 850 pages long. A more accomplished writer than King probably could have told the exact same story in half the length but I bet even King could have cut a good two hundred pages or so. Despite being a book about time travel, it actually has a very simple, straightforward and surprisingly linear narrative (this is not a fault though, not all time travel stories need to be full of convoluted paradox) but as I reflect back on the book I really don’t know why he needed so much space to tell it. God knows he didn’t use that space to do things like develop themes or character. Indeed the pages and pages of next to nothing happening in the long middle passages in the book nearly did inspire me to quit a couple of times, but even in the sloggiest passages King managed to keep things just interesting enough to inspire me to skim through them.
Perhaps a big part of my disinterest in these passages was in the fact that I found it impossible to give a shit about any of the characters. I have heard some books criticized before as having characters that were nothing more than names on the page, and this book is an embodiment of that. One of the best litmus tests I’ve ever heard for judging the quality of a character is whether or not you can describe them without mentioning physical characteristics and nearly every character in 11/22/63 fails this test including the lead character. I have sat here in earnest for the last couple of minutes trying to see if I can describe any non-physical characteristics of Epping and all I could come up with was “he’s not a bad guy,” by which I mean he basically tries to do good. And for the love interest, Sadie Dunhill, all I could come up with was “clumsy” which I think counts as a physical trait. Much of the middle passages of the book are dedicated to their relationship and since I found it impossible to care about either character I also found it impossible to care about their relationship. I took King’s word for it that they love each other though.
A couple of the peripheral characters were at least somewhat interesting. The sniveling, bitter Bill Turcotte was probably the most memorable and King did manage to give Lee Harvey Oswald some depth but King had a cheat sheet in the fact that Oswald was an actual person whose personality can be read about (he’s the only historical figure who plays a major role in the book).
I also have to give King credit for his attention to detail. Tidbits like the fact that coins from the present day wouldn’t work in phone booths from 1958 (the weights have changed) are nice touches, as was the fact that things like the Cuban Missile Crisis, which for us today is little more than another chapter in the history book, was for the people living through it an utterly terrifying experience. One of King’s biggest interests in the book is to render the past as thoroughly as possible. This was another sticking point with me though, as long passages of the book are nothing more than “nostalgia porn,” tiresome idylls on how much better things were back then, with occasional acknowledgement of the fact yeah things like racism happened too and that’s bad and all but man they don’t make blueberry pies like they used to. I wasn’t alive for the fifties or the sixties but I would wager that if I could travel back to them, any charm I’d feel for the time period would wear off pretty quickly after seeing my first “whites only” sign. I am, however, old enough to remember the days before the internet and no, Mr. King, we were not better off without it.
Where the book was at its best though was in building suspense. This is perhaps King’s greatest strength as a writer, and as often as I skimmed through passages that bored me I also found myself skimming through passages because dagummit I need to know what happens next and I need to know now. I have heard King’s popularity used as an argument for him being a great writer in the past, a ridiculous argument, since even a brief survey of classic literature demonstrates pretty handily that there is almost no correlation between popularity and tenacity (for every great writer who died a legend, there’s another who died in obscurity and there are quite a few degrees in between). King’s ability to build suspense is what I would attribute his popularity to. When he gets on a roll his books are very difficult to put down but, and maybe this does make me a snob, I do not think building suspense is the hallmark of a genius. It is a talent, a knack, and those lucky enough to possess it are much more likely to find themselves topping the bestseller lists than other writers.
The other point I hear defenders of King try to make is that he does build themes and ideas into his books: they’re about more than just story, I’ve been told. Yeah, let’s talk about that. The great”theme” of 11/22/63 is that life turns on a dime, a cheesy Hallmark platitude that gets repeated over and over again with the assurance of good old-fashioned folk wisdom. That’s pretty much all the book has for a theme: a corny cliche. Hardly philosophy there. Speaking of cliches, I don’t think King can go for a full paragraph without using one. His writing style is definitely not one of his strong points. When I was first aspiring to be a writer I was told time and again that King is a great model for how to write good sentences. After reading this book though, I’m really not sure why anyone thinks that.
One other point I want to make in King’s favor before I move on: King has a reputation for fucking up his endings. Even as a kid, when I was far less critical than I am now, I remember thinking that a lot of the endings of King’s books were terrible and it’s a sentiment I’ve heard even from a lot of his defenders. So I must give King credit that he did not fuck up the ending to 11/22/63. I saw the ending coming from as far away as Kennedy was in Oswald’s sights, but he didn’t fuck it up. Unlike me praising the book for actually finishing it though, that is pretty faint praise.
Because I never read books one at a time, I worked my way through three other, much shorter books, while I was taking on this one. I bring this up because I feel that each book, in its own way, can be contrasted nicely with some of King’s biggest shortcomings as a writer and lets us put into context just where he really stands with his literary merits.
The first was Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person, a book that shares a similar theme to 11/22/63 in that both are interested in the past. But Modiano, who was last year’s Nobel Prize winner, explores the past through the story of a man with amnesia who is carrying out an investigation to find out who he used to be before he lost his memory. The book is an exploration for how the past shapes our identity, and it is a simple and eloquent metaphor that is far more powerful than King’s bumper sticker musings.
The second was The Room, by an upcoming Swedish novelist named Jonas Karlsson. The central character, Bjorn, is one of the most maddening and insufferable central characters I have encountered in a book in a long time and, as such, is quite a remarkable accomplishment (I put very little stock in book cover blurbs but one comparing Bjorn to Bartleby was actually quite apt). Bjorn is infallibly logical, aloof, irascible, impersonal, obsessed with minute routines (and who becomes furious and disoriented when they are interrupted) and can’t understand why no one else around him can see him for the genius he is. See how I didn’t describe any physical characteristics there? Actually, except for the obvious facts that Bjorn is male and, since he is Swedish, presumably white, Karlsson never tells us what Bjorn looks like and it would have added nothing to the book.
The third was Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution. Chabon is another writer who I’ve been trying to decide for awhile whether or not he’s overrated and, while The Final Solution has still left the question up in the air for me, I have no problem saying that Chabon is a vastly superior writer to King and for me a big part of it was his style. Even when I had my doubts about how worthwhile the book was I kept going in part at least because Chabon’s sentences are so good. Some were so expertly tuned I had to read them two or three times just to appreciate how well written they were. Consider the following, which isn’t even an important passage: “The old man watched helpless as the boy, with mounting agitation, spun threads of loss from his palms and fingertips.” Next to the cliche-riddled prose of King, sentences like that are a treasure.
If an aspiring writer wanted a model of good writing, I would pick any of these three over King and, while we’re admittedly getting into subjectivities here, I would also say even the weakest of them surpasses King’s merits as a writer on nearly every front.
How then is King a genius? His themes have no depth, his characters are impossible to care about, his writing style is shit and even his greatest strength, his ability to spin a compelling and suspenseful narrative, gets bogged down by bloated, overly long passages. No writer, not even the greatest, is perfect, but King is so far from perfect his books aren’t even in the same galaxy.
What’s wrong with treating King for what he is: a writer of fun, entertaining but ultimately unsubstantial and deeply flawed books? What is this dogged insistence on praising him as a genius even accomplishing? I’m all for questioning traditional notions of what makes a great writer and automatically dismissing any sort of popular fiction as meaningless fluff is a sure sign of a narrow minded snob. But in trying to fight back against the narrow mindedness of stodgy thinking I feel we have gone too far in the other direction and trapped ourselves in a different box: the equally narrow minded belief that any writer who falls outside the traditional notions of what great literature is supposed to be must be a maligned genius. Stephen King is a fine companion for a long plane trip or a rainy day, but as a writer for the ages, not so much.