Your escape, my revelation

Oh boy! A juicy lit snob essay I can sink my teeth into! My Stephen King Problem: A Snob’s Notes by Dwight Allen.

The essay begins:

IN THE MID-EIGHTIES, when I was living in New York, a friend, an editor at a major publishing house, told me that I should read Stephen King. This friend, a guy who loved Pynchon and Nabokov and Gass [..], said that King was good. As I recall, my friend didn’t qualify the “good” by saying that King was “really pretty good for a genre writer” or “good enough if you happen to be on a desert island with nothing else to read.”

The essayist is clearly surprised that somebody who also loves Pynchon and Nabokov, a professional editor, could be a sincere Stephen King fan. The essay rambles on for quite some length, and then comes to its conclusion:

My son, George, who is now twenty-four, read a little King in high school, but he hasn’t gone back to him since then. After you’ve read Roberto Bolaño and Denis Johnson and David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon, as my son has, why would you return to Stephen King? King may be an adequate enough escape from life, if that’s all you require from a book of fiction, but his work (or what I’ve read of it) is a far cry from literature, which, at its best, is, sentence by sentence, a revelation about life.

In between these paragraphs the essayist eventually, reluctantly, with extreme prejudice, tried some King and remained unimpressed. (Also, Pynchon again?) He expresses dismay that other critics or essayists could be sincere in their praise of King's novels with their "workmanlike" prose and plodding length.

Note: If you're going to diss a popular author for his perceived lack of literary style, using such a cliche as "workmanlike" prose does nothing to establish your own credibility on the matter.

Note: If one of your objections to King is that he rambles on and on and could really use an editor, you might want to consider writing a shorter, more well-focused essay about this.

There is a lot to object to in this essay, but objecting is almost beside the point: the very title announces his intent to be a big snob. The essay itself is a narrative, and that narrative is a narcissistic celebration of his own tastes, which are of course finer and more elevated than yours. He is a "high-maintenance reader" who gets something special out of literature, something better than "escape" or "entertainment." He gets… wait for it… "sentence by sentence, a revelation about life."

This might be an entirely honest account. Maybe he really does read a book and after every sentence he stops and exhales a little sigh of pleasure because the sentence really was just that good. But that manner of reading prose doesn't seem at all normal to me. (For poetry, sure.) It would be like walking along a path with somebody who kept stopping to go, "wow, what a beautiful flower!" after every single daisy and iris. Eventually you'd be, like, "dude, are you stoned?"

I appreciate a finely-tuned sentence as much as any English lit nerd, but those sentences aren't meant to be isolated jewels twinkling under halogen lights on black velvet, waiting to be admired. They're meant to tell a story. In fact, they're meant to move you through a story. Ideally, they pull you through the story, so that you become mildly obsessive, unwilling to put it down, actively looking forward to the next time you get to read it. And they pull you into the story, so that it becomes strangely real and convincing. You might even feel oddly displaced, as if you spend time inhabiting the world of the story and not your own life.

Escape? I guess. But that makes it sound so trivial. It makes it sound like you could pick up any old book and get the same experience. I read on the bus, and often think of literary interest in terms of the bus scale. On the top level, you're actually excited to be on a bus, because you get to read your book. On the bottom level, you have a book open in front of you, and you're sort of reading it, but you find you keep stopping to stare out the window.

That includes books where the beauty of the individual sentences was quite striking, yet the more they accumulated, the less interested I became. There might be an inherent downside to the every-sentence-a-jewel aesthetic, which is: if you are stopping to admire every sentence, the problem is, you are stopping.

But, what about "revelation about life"? Is there a lingering benefit, beyond the entertainment of the moment, when you read something more — for lack of a better term — literary? Are there deep meanings and insights and such waiting somewhere in those pristine uncracked Pynchons, that you will never find by picking up your dog-eared copy of The Shining once again?

Well… maybe. Sometimes. Depending.

The question of resonance applies here — the emotions, characters, images, thoughts, moments that linger on after the work is done, that feel meaningful, that help shape to our inner narrative. But resonance is highly idiosyncratic, and acclaimed literary greatness is no guarantee of it. One person's revelation is another's tedious cliche or outright lie. A book can have resonance while failing many ordinary markers of literary accomplishment (Twilight, notably). And it can be super-duper-extra literary and still fail to make much of an impression. (For example, I enjoyed the Pynchon I read, but honestly couldn't tell you one single thing about it now, including whether it was The Crying of Lot 49 or Gravity's Rainbow.)

As an English lit major, I read great piles of books, most of them with Certified Literary Merit (TM), that were pretty much in one brain cell and out the other. But, every so often, something really clicked. Oddly, the exact same thing happens when I read ordinary popular genre books. This has led me to suspect that anyone who will only cop to loving books of CLM is not being entirely honest — but I can't prove this, and anyway, maybe we're both simply over-extrapolating from personal experience.

If the essayist is honestly baffled about how anybody can go from reading books of CLM back to King, maybe he needs to consider this revelation about life: other people are not him.


  1. I do love me a good jewel-like sentence book now and then, because exactly as you describe, it’s like being stoned. As such, I like them in very specific contexts–lounging around. I would never read Dhalgren or Lolita on the bus. It requires flannel sheets and a soft blanket to plop the book onto every now then while I stare at the ceiling and go “Whoaaaa.”

    1. Author

      The question of alternate reading modes is an excellent one that I didn’t really address. I find that the jewel books (much like poetry) don’t tend to say much to me when there are a lot of distractions around and my concentration is less than perfect.

      That said, I found Lolita to be that rare combination of jewel-like sentences and an absorbing story, and I read it on a ferry to Victoria while my companions did the New York Times crossword puzzle.

  2. It would be like walking along a path with somebody who kept stopping to go, “wow, what a beautiful flower!” after every single daisy and iris.

    Heh, I kind of do that sometimes.

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