I have a friend who likes to dismiss Stephen King in a very offhanded way. He read The Tommyknockers and was so put off by the length of the book (and maybe the ending—can’t remember) that all you have to do is *mention* Stephen King to provoke a disgusted diatribe.
I know other people who eschew Stephen King as a low-brow writer of pulp. They find his subject matter beneath them. Of course, they usually haven’t read more than one or two of his novels. Otherwise, they’d know he has written on a very wide range of topics—not just scary clowns and cars that come to life.
Still others turn their noses up at Stephen King because they feel he is unsophisticated. Maybe they feel his vocabulary isn’t lofty enough or that he makes too many pop-culture references.
To those people—all of them—I just want to yell “SHUT UP! SHUT UP!”
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve read a few Stephen King novels that could have benefited from a more disciplined edit or that sagged in the middle. And a few where the plot went so far afield that I just couldn’t suspend my disbelief any further.
However, I have good reasons for defending King’s true genius. I want to share these here, succinctly, in bullet-list format. I want to make sure that my points are clear and distinct so that there’s no confusion and so they don’t run into each other.
- Being a good writer is not about being lofty. In journalism school, my best professors were those that forced us to master economy of language. The lesson was that *more* words do not equal better writing. Nor do long, wandering, self-consciously flowery sentences. Words are a device to convey meaning. The craft is about using the right words and using them well, not using more of them. Long sentences obfuscate meaning. Short, concise sentences with carefully chosen language are usually the best way to say something well. You don’t want your reader to stop and become conscious of the language you use. When that happens, you’ve lost them. Your words should be a window through which your meaning is easily apparent.
- Being a good writer doesn’t mean you appeal only to the top 1% of readers. Maybe being a pretentious writer means you appeal only to the most educated and intellectual among us, but being a *good* writer means that you can write in a way that is accessible to a wide range of people. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you should write only for 7th graders. But I am saying that if your writing can’t be understood by a 10th grader, you may be a bit pretentious! In journalism school, we learned to calculate the “fog factor” of our writing. Fog factor is a way to analyze how difficult your writing is to understand (how “foggy” it is). It takes into account the number of words in every sentence, the number of sentences in each paragraph, and the number of syllables in each word. More words, more sentences, and more syllables usually translate into more fog. Fog is bad. It clouds your meaning. Coincidentally, low fog factor makes your work more accessible to a greater number of people. That doesn’t mean you’re writing for the lowest common denominator. It means you’re being an effective, unpretentious writer. To put this in perspective, most American newspapers are written at about a 9th-grade level. The country’s loftiest newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, is written at an 11th-grade level.
- Being a good writer doesn’t mean that you take yourself too seriously. Even if you’re a dramatic writer, or you write on sober topics, taking yourself too seriously is off-putting. Take your subject matter seriously—sure. But not yourself. Your reader can smell self-importance. Do everyone a favor and make your reader more important than your ego. Make your words a servant to meaning and try to tell an engaging story.
- Being a good writer doesn’t mean that you’re struck by flashes of genius all the time. Au contraire. The best writers are hard workers who research like crazy and put in incredible amounts of time. Stephen King has published 54 novels, including seven under the pen name Richard Bachman, and six non-fiction books. He has written nearly 200 short stories, most of which have been collected in book collections. We’re talking thousands and thousands of hours of hard work researching and writing. The man must have spent his life doing almost nothing else to produce that volume of work. Not to mention the fact that a good many of his books landed on the bestsellers’ list. To dismiss a body of work like that is just exasperating to me, especially when issued by people who probably haven’t written anything more than a 5-paragraph essay since high school. Writing is back-breaking, unglamorous work. Respect, people!
I could continue on about ad inifinitum, but I’ll spare you. As a professional writer, I have nothing but admiration for Stephen King. I see him as one of the hardest-working writers of all time. His novels and stories have appealed to an almost inconceivably wide audience. I can only aspire to be able to entertain so many people, to be as accessible to so many, and to turn out such a massive volume of work.
Hats off, Mr. King. I’ve got your back.