Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Stephen King a "bad writer"?

A writing instructor nitpicks King's style in Con Games: Why Stephen King Can't Write. Below is a relevant sample:

"Teaching a writing class last week, I went to the top of the bestseller lists and did a blind taste test of Stephen King's "Mr. Mercedes." Here's the third paragraph from the new novel: 
 "When Augie reached the top of the wide, steep drive leading to the big auditorium, he saw a cluster of at least two dozen people already waiting outside the rank of doors, some standing, most sitting. Posts strung with yellow DO NOT CROSS tape had been set up, creating a complicated passage that doubled back on itself, mazelike."  
Surprise! I used this paragraph to highlight what I consider bad writing. Only later did I realize Stephen King makes these mistakes on purpose for reasons he explains in his how-to "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft." Give me a minute on the road with "Mr. Mercedes" and I'll explain.  
Strike One: "a wide, steep drive leading to the big auditorium" is vague enough to mean almost anything and therefore means nothing. What's a big auditorium? What's a steep drive? And why bother with those generic, indistinct details to begin with on the first page of a novel?  
Strike Two: what in the name of all that's scary is a "rank of doors"? Is it some kind of hierarchy or grading system or a band from the Sixties? I have no idea, and if you're honest, neither do you. It's a stinkeroo.  
Strike three: "a complicated passage that doubled back on itself, mazelike." I immediately thought of Jack Nicholson in "The Shining," one of King's best concoctions, but this was not a maze at all. The "complicated passage," as King writes on, was designed "to cram as many people as possible into as small a space as possible," the way they do in "movie theaters and the bank."  
In fact, the passage is not only not "mazelike" but almost exactly the opposite: a line, like the ones you see at airport security and DisneyWorld, that moves you to the front with no chance of losing yourself because you have no choice. The crammees are in a "cluster" to begin with, rendering the notion of a maze completely incoherent.

Writing is an inexact science; and it will always be possible to cherry-pick sentences from bestsellers and find flaws in them. (As this essay came from a writing instructor, we shouldn't be surprised at his approach.)

When taken to extremes, clunky sentence structure and bad form can indeed get in the way of an otherwise compelling work of fiction (if these flaws become unavoidably distracting). 

At the end of the day, however, story is still the most important factor. (A disconcerting amount of what is known as literary fiction is filled with "good writing" but dull stories.)

To answer the question posed in the title: Heck, no. Stephen King is a great writer, a great storyteller. 

But it is fair to point out that some of his books are better than others: Carrie, Pet Sematary, The Stand, 'Salem's Lot and The Dead Zone are among the best examples of popular modern fiction.

From a Buick 8 and Cell, on the other hand, well...not so much.

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