Adam Ash

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Bookplanet: does Stephen King write literature?

King takes aim at Lit wits
Stephen King's best novel in a decade is still hostage to those damn professors

Stephen King's esteemed place in the hierarchy of genre fiction authors is undisputed, but a more contentious question has arisen in the decade or so: Can King's work be considered literature?

Fans, and even a few brave academics, have argued that King's novels and stories, taken together, provide a composite portrait of late-20th-century American masculinity in crisis. They also point to his undeniable storytelling skills, his vast if somewhat lurid imagination and his gift for capturing American speech as proof of, if not literary greatness, then something more than mere hack work.

This question hit the media in a big way when King won the 2003 National Book Award for distinguished contribution to American letters. King's supporters, many of them such "literary" authors as Michael Chabon, said that it was about time that a writer of King's calibre was recognized by the literary establishment; many traditionalists saw the bestowing of the award on a mere horror writer as another example of the dumbing down of American culture.

There was nothing new in any of this. The literary value of genre fiction, broadly defined as work that eschews moral ambiguity, narrative experimentation, verbal nuance and depth of characterization for such "lowbrow" considerations as story, suspense and obvious readability, has vexed critics and academics of the English-speaking world since at least the late 19th century.

What most of the commentators failed to ask is whether King's work is any good, regardless of its genre classification and "literary" intentions. The only question worth asking is whether the work stands up to a close reading, both as genre fiction and literary fiction.

King's latest novel, Lisey's Story , provides the ideal text to test that question, embodying all of the strengths and limitations of King's work. Like many of King's later novels, Lisey's Story attempts to extend the boundaries of horror fiction by delving deeper into the everyday life and complex internal motivations of its central character, in this case Lisey Debusher Landon.

Lisey is the recently widowed wife of bestselling author Scott Landon, a fantastically successful author of dark, fantastic fiction whose early death left Lisey with a fat bank account and a rambling house in the country full of memories and boxes of manuscripts, letters and other detritus from his prodigious literary output, plus all the commentary it generated in media and academic circles.

Scott has been dead for two years when the novel opens. At the urging of her older sister and the pressure of assorted academics — who see in Scott's unpublished papers a goldmine for potential critical commentary — Lisey finally begins the long slog of cleaning out her dead husband's study.

This narrative set-up allows King to insert a stunningly unsubtle commentary on his own feelings about the worthiness of genre fiction and its often cool reception by the critical community. As Lisey begins her long recollection of Scott's storied career, she heaps scorn on everything from academics to critics to a tiny university magazine called Push-Pelt — which, Lisey immediately concludes, is "one of those names designed by English majors to be charming and mean absolutely nothing."

Lisey even coins a word — Incunks — to describe the impatient "wheedlers" who are after Scott's papers. King obviously finds this word pretty clever, as he has Lisey use it four times in the next two pages. This would be fine, if not a little annoying, if King were using this repetition to illustrate some facet of Lisey and Scott's characters, but it becomes clear that King is entirely onside with his fictional couple and their anti-academic bent.

So when Lisey describes a professor who failed to come to Scott's aid after a botched assassination attempt as a "southern-fried chickenshit coward," the reader can bet that the narrative will bear this judgment out.

And when another professor accidentally sets a psychotic fan on the trail of Scott's unpublished work, that professor will prove to be the kind of weasely, failed-writer-turned-teacher that Lisey predicted he'd be.

But King is after something bigger than a bludgeoning metatext on the supremacy of the author over the critic, and King's own status as a "literary" author.

Lisey's Story hinges on Lisey's prolonged, painful meditation on 25 years of marriage to a very troubled author with a complex imaginary world — and here the novel both fails spectacularly and occasionally opens up into some of the most genuinely moving and nuanced writing of King's career.

First the bad stuff: As with his treatment of the bad guys, King's personal feelings for Lisey and her beloved late husband utterly dictates their treatment, both in tone and narrative outcome. From page one, the message is clear: If you don't like Scott and Lisey, you're on the side of the Incunks and the chickenshit cowards.

Worse, King goes to painful lengths to establish the depth of his protagonists' love for each other by embroidering Lisey's reminiscences with a constant gush of baby talk and insiders' jokes, which makes reading the narrative feel at times like being trapped under the bed of an aging couple on their second honeymoon.

King is trying to mine the language of intimacy to explore both the depths and limits of Scott and Lisey's love. While this technique does help give their relationship a depth not found in ordinary genre fiction, King is far too enamoured of his creations to occasionally tell them to shut up and get on with the story.

In spite of this self-indulgence and an opening hundred pages that could easily have been trimmed to 20, Lisey's Story is King's best novel in at least a decade.

The central story — Lisey's attempt to unravel the mystery of Scott's imaginary and not-so-imaginary worlds — shows King at his best, blending the mundane daily realities of average American lives with fully realized, fantastic landscapes of paranoia, obsession, loss and unbridled imagination.

It's a shame King second-guesses his own truly awesome imagination and storytelling powers to stoop to the level of a merely literary author.

(James Grainger is the author of the story collection The Long Slide (ECW), winner of the 2005 ReLit Award.)


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