Stephen King has lived a charmed life. Yet he says that he is annoyed when asked “What is the secret of your success?” It is one of many staple questions that he is asked all the time, apparently, along with “Where do you get your ideas from?”. The answer to both, when given honestly, is usually “I don’t know”.
Except, in Stephen King’s case, the main elements of his success seem pretty obvious. I am sure I am not the first person to notice this. It is spelled out quite clearly in King’s autobiographical On Writing.
Throughout his career, King had three constants in his writing life that are as important as they are rare. Firstly, he loved to write and wrote what he loved. Secondly, he had the full support, morally and emotionally if not always financially, of his immediate family, first his mother, then his wife. Thirdly, he had distant detractors who never stopped hazing him throughout his career. All three are essential to a writer’s success, yet each is a difficult element to have.
Firstly, writing is hard. It is not always a pleasure. Yet King seems to have enjoyed every minute of the creative process. This is in fact very rare. And yet, maintaining the literary ear attuned to the enjoyment your story creates is the number one prerequisite for a writer’s success. If the author cannot enjoy his novel, who can?
Secondly, families suck. They would rather see you go to medical school than watch you working on your novel. And this is only partly due to genuine concern for their child’s future. Parents would rather say that their son is in medical school than that he is typing away in the cellar collecting rejection slips. Family members, in most cases, are more concerned with their own welfare than yours. Mothers generally prefer bragging rights to having a happy child. Wives generally prefer to see you bring home a paycheck than to pursue your dreams. Family members are usually the writer’s closest enemies and exceptions are rare. Most of the time they have the decency to pay lip service to the idea of you pursuing your dreams, but only as long as you have a decent day job. Few people actually have family members who will give heartfelt encouragement in the pursuit of dreams, when it is most needed. Those who do are very lucky.
Thirdly, distant enemies are an important element in the writer’s success. They should not be members of your family or someone you meet everyday. They need to be invisible strangers who will criticize your works through a remote instrument, most preferably a newspaper column. In this arena, King was particularly blessed. No other writer in recent history had been so consistently maligned by serious critics for such a long period of time. Distant enemies not only motivate you to do better, they sell your books for you. If you read an article in the TIME magazine that said “The author weaves a mesmerizing tale that takes place in a rich imaginary landscape populated with realistic and relatable characters” you would understand that it is a good book, but you probably would not buy it. But if a book critic said “This book is a waste of rain forest and a stain on our literary culture. It is a cheap page-turner for the enthusiasts for the macabre. Why this hardbound trash is a best seller among the semi-literate baffles the serious reader” I bet you would buy that book. I certainly would. The reason is simple: The latter is rare. Book critics are people who love books. They live to bring good books to the public’s attention. Naturally, the books they review are usually either good or almost good. They do not often waste print space on books they do not like. Stephen King, through most of his career, had been a virtuoso story teller, but not a great prose writer. That alone is not such a great sin. Yet his critics have been relentless. Even when King won the National Book Foundation Award, Harold Bloom said that it was “another low in the shocking process of dumbing down of our cultural life”. He calls King “an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.” King explains that critics tend to be suspicious of commercial success and that they are loath to allow genre writers and pulp fiction peddlers to join the ranks of the serious cultural elite. But that is only partly true, and does not explain all of it. There are other commercially successful writers and genre writers who do not get the same ruthless treatment as King. J. K. Rowling comes to mind. She is a great story teller, but not a prose writer. For the duration of her career when she wrote the Harry Potter series, she was a genre writer, and she was hugely commercially successful. She did not get high marks from the likes of Harold Bloom, but she did not get rebukes anywhere near as venomous as those directed at King. The same can be said of any number of successful genre writers. King received a disproportionate share of insults. Eventually, as he won some grudging respect from the literary society, his production slowed.
Shakespeare and Dickens got the same treatment from their respective contemporaries. Both were commercially successful. Both were criticized for being tasteless. George Elliot, a female “serious” novelist of the Victorian era, wrote “Who, it may be asked, takes Mr Dickens seriously? Is it not foolish to estimate his melodramatic and sentimental stock-in-trade gravely?” That is pretty much a summary of what they say about King. Dickens has stood the test of time, and King probably will too.
The psychological effect of distant enemies reviling the author and his work, counterbalanced by the encouragement of his immediate family is a difficult one to imagine. At the very minimum, the contrast enhances the warmth of the encouragement from the family member. It has a stabilizing effect on family life. Some successful writers became so full of themselves that they neglect their families. Supportive wives do not always take it well when they are not their husband’s only fans anymore. Distant enemies strengthen the bond between the author and his most intimate supporters. Creative partnerships flourish under distress.
No doubt there are other psychological merits to having consistent detractors. There have been writers who hated the “genre writer” criticism so much that they turned to writing “serious” novels. No doubt King was tempted to do the same. But his love for his works and his close supporters have so far persuaded him to stay true to himself. This tug-of-war has made him push his envelope by just the right amount, enhancing his works over the years.
Why did King receive such a disproportionate battery of critical cannon fire? Given that it has proved more of a blessing than a curse, the short answer is; because he deserved it. But there was also a lot of good luck involved. He arrived at a time when the publishing industry was in a state of economic anomaly and best seller writers were most maligned. However, the most universal formula for collecting the ire of literary critics is 1. write in a previously unrecognized dialect, 2. focus on the POV of the underclass, and 3. employ visceral cues such as sex, violence, and graphic repulsiveness.
King wrote in a style that employed drastically reduced exposition for a writer of the 70’s. In the 21st century, writing classes teach aspiring writers to cut the lengthy expositions because modern readers no longer have the patience for them. King saw this forty years ago and wrote in a way few people in the era, other than pornographers and “junk” writers, did. Reduced exposition is now the standard, but early in his career it was radical. E. L. James wrote in the dialect of text messages, described as “staccato prose” “telegraphic” and worse, which was evidently familiar to millions of readers, but was an alien language to the majority of book reviewers. Such innovations are certain to insult the sensitivities of at least some of the book reviewers.
Dickens had what was termed “an unhealthy obsession” with the underclass. Specifically, he drew pictures of the underclass that made the middle class feel bad about themselves. This liberal slant in literature had important influence on real world politics through history. But it almost always drew disrespect from critics who seemed to believe that the only fictional characters who mattered in the world had frills on their sleeves. It is not quite as overtly political as Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher, but it is a distant cousin. Not a crash of political beliefs, but a crash of sensibilities. Some people do not want to see the tragedy of a family trapped in a Volkswagen with bad transmission take the attention away from the tragedy of a family trapped in a gilded cage. These critics may be politically liberal, but conservative in their literary preferences.
Sex, violence and the icky sight of decaying corpses are sure to rile up the purists of literature. “It’s a kind of pornography” is the common phrase. Pornography is when you do not care very much for the story and you just want to skip to the “good stuff”. John Irving once wrote that “a terrorist is a pornographer” because he does not really care what he is fighting for as long as something goes boom. Susan Sontag wrote that science fiction is a “close relative” of pornography, presumably because we read them for the monsters and spaceships instead of for their literary merit. Horror is a “kind of pornography” because it is the icky stuff we want to read. In fact, any kind of literature with a “hook” and a “kick” can be construed as a kind of pornography. If you write a novel with sex and violence as the hook, and the graphic death of the serial killer as the kick, you are a literary terrorist dishing out a “kind of pornography” for the masses. This will win you the hatred of a lot of literary critics, not the terrorists but the terror mongers.
Stephen King, no doubt without intention, had covered all three universal reasons for literary ostracism. As a result, he had a lesion of detractors who consistently and doggedly insulted his works for most of his career, which in turn strengthened his bond with his immediate collaborators, giving him a consistently happy family life, which in turn fed his love for writing. King writes that the secret of his success is that he managed to stay married. There is some truth in that. And marriage is a multi-faceted enterprise. It is always unwise to draw simplistic pictures of other people’s marriage. Assuming that we are allowing considerable leeway for error in assessing the nature of King’s partnership with his wife, his primary reader, it is presumably safe to say that their relationship was relatively stable, and that their literary output benefited from it. This may not have been possible if King was universally accepted and became so big headed that he lost sight of himself and his family.
Good enemies in the right places are important to success. To have unwavering love for your work, uncompromising support of your immediate partners, and the consistent challenge from your distant enemies, are the elements that support a productive, creative life.
One thought on “The Elements of Success”
Another interesting reflection. I didn’t realise Stephen King had any more secrets, but these were interesting to read. Great advice to take on board. x
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