Front Page

The 'Zine

Sunsphere City

Bonus Track

Market Square

Contact us!
About the site

on this story

Between Now and Never
Stories of the struggle for integration

On Writing

Artful John Gardner vs. the King of Horror

by Dale Bailey

Check the shelves of any book shop and you'll discover dozens of books on writing, ranging from meditations on the craft like Annie Dillard's The Writing Life to practical manuals such as Evan Marshall's The Marshall Plan Workbook, which concludes with 58 worksheets for aspiring authors. So one can't help wondering why Stephen King felt compelled to weigh in with On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Scribner, $25). What on earth remains to be said—even by a man whose blurbs lay claim to the title of world's best-selling novelist?

Not much, it turns out. But King's book remains interesting—and not alone because of its gripping accounts of his battles with substance abuse and his painful recovery from the 1999 accident that nearly killed him. On Writing is best read as another salvo in King's campaign to dismantle the hack-who-slashes reputation of his youth. While the content of his fiction hasn't changed—consider Dreamcatcher, with its loving descriptions of intestinal gas—its packaging now has a distinctly literary aura. These days, King pops up regularly in The New Yorker, the habitat of literary lions on the order of John Updike. And starting with 1998's Bag of Bones, he traded up to Scribner, the literary publisher who brought us Faulkner, and he abandoned the lurid covers adorning his old paperbacks for the evocative art you expect on the latest middle-brow opus to receive Oprah's stamp of approval.

King's not the first writer of popular fiction to spend years trying to escape the shadow of his own success. Arthur Conan Doyle pushed Sherlock Holmes over Reichenbach Falls in "The Final Problem," way back in 1893. Ironically, such writers almost invariably fail to see that their best chance of immortality lies in the work that won them fame. Nobody reads Doyle's The White Company anymore, but the Holmes stories remain classics. Strip away literary snobbery and you'll find that the work that lasts often is popular fiction: Shakespeare retired a rich man. Dickens was the most-read writer of his day. Pop fiction and its literary brethren bubble from the same springs.

That becomes clear when you compare King's On Writing to an old stand-by of the genre, the late John Gardner's The Art of Fiction (Vintage, $12). Their starting assumptions couldn't be more different. Acknowledging his pulp origins, King points out that "nobody ever asks [pop novelists] about the language." Gardner, on the other hand, author of such classics as Grendel, nearly sprains a muse in his haste to dismiss category fiction. His instructions, he points out, won't hold true "for the writer of nurse novels or thrillers." After all, "it requires an authentic junk mind" to write junk fiction. And if there's one thing Gardner makes clear, it's that he doesn't have a junk mind.

We can tell because he trots out no less a luminary than Homer whenever he wants to make a point. Occasionally, when he's slumming, he may also toss in a reference to some gutter bum like John Steinbeck. But we're never allowed to forget—never—how well-read John Gardner is. One almost feels sorry for King, with his paltry references to Elmore Leonard and Thomas Harris. He just seems outgunned.

Yet, putting aside the tattered shreds of my English-major training—Emperor's new clothes if ever there were any—I have to admit: Elmore Leonard's a fine writer, and Thomas Harris, despite the travesty that is Hannibal, wrote the best suspense novel in decades when he penned Red Dragon. So maybe it's not surprising that King and Gardner wind up saying the same things about the art of fiction.

Both argue that good storytelling—storytelling that literally transports the reader—is a magic over which the writer has only limited control. Gardner describes fiction-making as a kind of lucid dreaming. King notes that stories are "found objects," fossils that have to be excavated from the soil of the unconscious mind. The worst thing any writer can do, they agree, is break the spell of the story.

Unfortunately, there are lots of ways to do just that, ranging from bad grammar (a no-no for both Gardner and King) to lapses in momentum. King steers us clear of flashbacks, Gardner admonishes us to keep physical actions in their proper sequence. And both men enjoin us from ever being anything less than interesting. In fact, Gardner goes so far as to admit that "drugstore fiction can often have more to offer than fiction thought to be of a higher class," going on to embrace Isaac Asimov and John le Carré, the kind of writers Stephen King so clearly loves. It's almost enough to make us forgive him all those allusions to Homer—and to recommend that the aspiring novelist could do worse than read King and Gardner both.

April 26, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 17
© 2001 Metro Pulse