Stephen King is one of the most popular American writers of the modern era. For much of his career he was dogged by literary writers, who considered his work genre fiction that was not on the same level as literary works. As I’ve mentioned here before, the “literary” versus “non-literary” debate is ongoing and likely will never be resolved. As I see it, some people are just closed-minded about the whole thing, like one of my high school teachers who insisted that science fiction could never be literary, by definition.
I think that’s just silly. I certainly consider myself a Stephen King fan. I think his writing is great. I always like to remind people that “dysfunctional family,” the subject of many so-called literary works, is just as much of a genre as horror or fantasy or science fiction. The only difference is that it supposedly better represents “real life” – but as a reader, I already have one of those. Why would I want to bother reading about somebody else’s?
At any rate, in his groundbreaking work On Writing, which I am convinced that every aspiring writer should read, it’s clear that what King does is very deliberate. He models his work on the style of Ernest Hemingway, and frankly I like King’s work better. Hemingway is important in American literature because the popular writing style when he was getting started was florid and convoluted, and his sparse prose and short sentences cut through it all like a buzz-saw and felt like something truly new and different.
My dislike of Hemingway mostly has to do with his choice of material. The power of his style is that it allows a story to acquire speed. So instead of just sitting there on the page for the reader, the narrative basically comes right at you. But how many stories about subjects like “the manliness of bullfighting” do you really need? As I see it – and it may be an unpopular opinion – Hemingway came up with a real innovation in prose, but didn’t know what to do with it. At the very least, he chose subjects that did not take full advantage of it.
King’s big innovation was to take the sparse Hemingway style and apply it to the horror genre, where its power can be leveraged to great effect. A story about bullfighting coming right at you? So what? But a story that plays on existential fears and is already designed to provoke a strong emotional reaction becomes even more frightening as it acquires that speed. I’m convinced that this is why King became such a star in horror fiction. Speed makes his stories fundamentally scarier, and a more complex conventional literary style is going to fall short of that every time.
So that’s a long introduction to this article from LitHub, which I’m happy to see give King some of the credit he deserves for his influence on American literature. His work inspired a whole generation of writers, both literary and otherwise. As the article mentions, back in 2003 King won the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award, a prize that in my opinion he richly deserved.
Even though King’s work contains fantastical elements, you really can’t make the case that his work has nothing to do with real life. His work clearly fits how science fiction writers who objected to scorn from literary authors always explain that their stories really are not about new technology, but how people react to it. The same is true of horror. It’s an old truism that you see the truth of people when they are confronted with extreme situations, and King is a master at drawing that out of his characters. Really, how do you know who you are if you’ve never been stalked by a supernatural monster?
My natural writing style is not nearly as sparse as King’s but I have worked at making it more similar. I put a lot of work into simplifying the prose in Trump Card, since it’s written as a parody of Young Adult fiction. Maybe once I write a few more books that way and get good enough to write the kind of sped-up horror that King does so well, I’ll give it a shot. It certainly makes no sense to me to write horror any other way. As I see it florid prose, even skillfully employed, always slows down the story. Sometimes that can be appropriate. But with a horror story, fast is almost always better.