Monday, September 11, 2017

On that Stephen King boycott

Just in case you weren’t aware, Stephen King really, really doesn’t like Donald Trump, and he’s made no bones about expressing his opinions (mostly on Twitter, but elsewhere, too). 

Donald Trump has never been known to let an insult go unanswered. According to Stephen King, President Trump has blocked him on Twitter. 

So Stephen King retaliated—with a public statement to the effect that Donald Trump would not be welcome at showings of IT, the remade movie version of Stephen King’s 1986 novel. (How Stephen King intended to enforce this ban was unclear.)

The matter didn't end there, of course. (Does anyone ever just let a subject drop, nowadays?) A group of Donald Trump supporters have responded by calling for a boycott not only of IT—but of all Stephen King’s books and movies. The boycott has achieved questionable success at the time of this writing, but that could always change.

Are you with me so far? Yes, this is the sort of tragicomic absurdity that only the twenty-first century could provide.

Let’s begin with Stephen King. I’ve been following Stephen King since 1984, when he had already achieved a measure of fame, but had not yet been catapulted to the megastar bestselling writer-emeritus status that defines him today.

Stephen King has never been particularly shy about his politics; and his politics have always leaned sharply to the left. Stephen King is a product of the 1960s student revolts; and his political statements are typically the boilerplate of that era, updated slightly to fit modern times.

But in the 1980s, Stephen King seldom allowed his politics to stand in the way of his integrity as a writer. Back in the Reagan era, he would occasionally make a passing statement in an interview about his displeasure with the GOP. But I emphasize: a passing statement. There were a few political biases in his short stories and novels; but these were no more than average, and mostly forgivable.

The 21st-century version of Stephen King is a different writer, entirely. And this notable shift didn’t begin with the Trump administration—just in case you’re inclined to blame the 45th President for King’s aberrations. King’s 2009 novel, Under the Dome, is a thinly veiled diatribe against Republicans, social conservatives, and evangelical Christians. The villains in Under the Dome are cardboard cutouts, paranoid projections of everything that Stephen King imagines red-state Americans to be. The novel represents a sad decline for the genius who once penned The Stand (1978), The Shining (1977), and ‘Salem’s Lot (1975).

And the sad ironies don’t stop there. 

I recall reading IT in 1986, when the book was first released. There is a scene in which one of the main characters, William "Bill" Denbrough, is harassed by a creative writing instructor who wants him to weave a political message into every piece of his writing. Denbrough rebels, with the observation that, “Politics always change. Stories never do.” A story should just be a story. 

Think about that one for a moment: Politics always change, stories never do. 

I was an eighteen-year-old college freshman at the time, and just beginning to consider the intersections between politics, literature, and popular culture. Nevertheless, the quote had a profound impact on me, and it has shaped my public conduct as I have begun writing and publishing fiction.  

I don’t believe that fiction writers necessarily need to hide their political views. There is a point, however, when the politically zealous fiction writer reaches a crossroads. At that point, it is necessary to make a choice: Is the writer primarily a storyteller, or is the writer primarily a political activist who occasionally dabbles in writing fiction? 

Stephen King, we might argue, has long since chosen to become the latter. Although he still produces the occasional page-turner, the quality of his writing has declined significantly since I first began reading him. Most of his really good novels were published in the last century. Nowadays, he is just as likely to make the news for his political activism as for his fiction.

But what about Donald Trump? We mustn’t let him off the hook, either. Donald Trump is, perhaps, our first thoroughly 21st-century president in the way he conducts himself. Like the Internet itself, Trump favors the broad brush over subtlety, outlandish bombast over carefully worded analysis. 

Many of Trump’s frothing opponents are mildly deranged. (Trump Derangement Syndrome, or TDS, has recently been documented by the American Psychological Association as a bonafide—but hopefully temporary—mental disorder.) That said, there is plenty of room to criticize the current occupant of the Oval Office. 

And, of course, Trump has an addiction to Twitter—which he should have discarded when he left Manhattan for the White House. Whatever one thinks of Trump’s policy positions, his style as chief executive leaves much to be desired.

I might close with a few predictions about the boycott of IT. Like the simplistic and caustic Internet meme, the Internet-based boycott has become yet another weapon in our endlessly weaponized political debates. 

Liberals routinely boycott every institution that veers even slightly away from their doctrinaire narratives on the politics of race, sexual orientation, and gender. (Recall the Chick-fil-A boycott of a few years ago, after the CEO of the company expressed a personal adherence to traditional norms, where the institution of marriage was concerned.) 

Conservatives, of late, have taken to boycotting institutions that impose draconian standards of political correctness. (There is presently a movement afoot to boycott Google, which takes a Stalinesque approach to any political discussion involving race, sexual orientation, or gender.)

And, of course, Trump supporters now regularly boycott celebrities who go out of their way to trash the president. This is how Stephen King found himself the target of this present boycott.

The Stephen King boycott may have a marginal effect over the long haul. There is a cumulative factor at work here. Stephen King has gone out of his way in recent years to become the celebrity writer version of that obnoxious cocktail party guest who won’t shut up about his politics. Stephen King no longer regards himself as merely a bestselling writer, but as a bestselling writer emeritus. This makes him an all-around expert on all the affairs of the world. As noted above, King’s political obsessions have tainted his writing for well over a decade. A lot of people were aware of his shenanigans before the recent brouhaha. 

But every boycott produces a counter-boycott. After leftwing activists announced their boycott of that nefarious chicken restaurant, conservatives made the support of Chick-fil-A a political cause célèbre. For several weeks, the Chick-fil-A near my house (in semi-rural southern Ohio) was standing-room only. The line at the drive-through was always ten to twelve cars long. On balance, Chik-fil-A probably made money from the boycott.

The same might turn out to be true for Stephen King. Without the boycott, IT is just another story that has been around for 30 years, in one form or another. Like I said, I read the book as an 18-year-old college freshman; and I’m now pushing fifty. (IT has already been adapted for the screen, too—in the form of a 1990 TV miniseries.) 

But a certain percentage of the population will flock to the theaters if the movie can be framed as a strike against Donald Trump. Because some people, in our current environment, absolutely live for that sort of thing. 

But Stephen King probably doesn't care all that much. Not really. He already has a net worth of $400 million. He isn't going to lose any sleep if a few million Trump supporters stay home from the cinema premiere of IT. Attention spans are perilously short nowadays. King figures he’ll get their money a few years down the road in DVD sales, when they’ve moved on to something else. 

So don’t look for the Stephen King boycott to have any measurable effect on Stephen King’s public behavior. King is going to continue shooting his mouth off on Twitter and anywhere else he can. As will Donald Trump.