Monday, December 30, 2013

On Breaking Up With An Author: An Open Letter To Stephen King

I originally posted this open letter to Stephen King on my Facebook page, but it generated such a lively and sometimes heated discussion that I've decided to share it here. Let me preface what you're about to read by saying I've been a big fan of Stephen King going all the way back to Carrie. Granted, I was only 8 years old when that first book was published, but I started in on King at the age of 13 or so and happily devoured everything he had to offer well into my 20's. Whenever I wanted a good, old-fashioned scare from the type of book I didn't dare read alone at night, King was my go-to source.

In 1999 King was hit by a car and needed an extended period of convalescence. He even spoke publicly about the possibility of retiring. It didn't last, he came back in 2006 with Cell, and he's continued to release new novels, essays and other works since. And I haven't liked a single one of the novels he's written since his return. Book after book, year after year, he continues to disappoint me and make me regret having given him the benefit of the doubt (and my time and money) yet again.

With that said, here's my open letter.

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Dear Stephen King:
It was a lovely reader-author relationship while it lasted, but it's been over for at least a decade and it's time for me to move on. I think it's really wonderful that you've found faith and feel that it, and sobriety, have turned your life around. I just don't enjoy the fact that those two things have become the central themes of virtually every piece of fiction you've written since you discovered them.

I came to you looking for truly frightening, taut, dark and edgy supernatural horror that explored the limits of human strength and character in the face of pure, inexplicable evil. But you haven't been writing that kind of material for a very, very long time and what you have been writing has been so self-indulgent, maudlin and overwrought that's it's difficult for me to believe you even have an editor anymore.

I held out hope that with Dr. Sleep, your long-awaited sequel to The Shining, you would return to form at last. I was wrong. It's less a supernatural horror thriller than an overlong, overwritten examination of sad-sack, grown-up, recovering alcoholic Danny filling in as your usual Christ figure as he takes on your recently-typical cadre of banal baddies.

Again and again you write these characters who are supposed to seem boringly ordinary on the surface yet filled with a churning malice and menacing hunger to destroy and subsume, but they turn out to be boringly ordinary through and through. Selfish and grasping, sure. But not remotely alien or deeply disturbing in the manner of the bad guys from your earlier books, like Black House and The Stand.

So, this is goodbye. I will always remember the good books fondly, and know you'll be just fine without me.


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It wouldn't be right for me to reprint the discussion that followed on Facebook, but I can share one of my follow-up comments by way of further explaining what my primary issue with King's more recent work is:

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See, if King wants to switch it up and write character studies, that's fine. It's a departure from what made him a bestselling and beloved author, but it's his right and many a creative type has branched out into other types of work and found a NEW audience with great success. But King's publishers just keep on banging that "Master of Horror!!" drum on every book he releases and forcing every new book of his into the "thriller" category (no matter how much the book DOESN'T fit that category), to try and hold on to the old audience, when they know very well the new book is NOTHING like the stuff the old audience originally came for.

I am part of that old audience, and I don't turn to King for character studies, historical fiction or coming of age stories. IMO, there are already plenty of other authors who do those things FAR better than King, and if I want those kinds of stories I'll go to those other authors. What (IMO) King was best at was the supernatural horror-thriller, with evil that's not grounded in any system of religion or morality, but just IS. The fact that it was totally unpredictable, illogical and inexplicable is what made it so scary: if you can't explain or predict it, how can you avoid such evil in real life? There was no soft landing with the old King, there was no "we all learned something today" moment. And that's what made it so great, IMO. It was nihilistic. But once King himself stopped being nihilistic, so did his work. Great for the man, bad for the work.

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As I state in my open letter, King will be just fine without me. There are literally millions of readers out there who are still buying and loving his work, but I will no longer be among them.

I'm disappointed to see the novels of King's son, Joe Hill, going down that same overwritten, poorly edited, more-character-study-than-horror road. Hill's Locke and Key graphic novels (with illustrator Gabriel Rodriguez) and his Heart Shaped Box were right in line with what I loved about the Stephen King of old. But Hill's supposed horror-thriller Horns is about 60% backstory/character study/coming of age tale, and his NOS4A2 suffers from the same problems of repetition and authorial navel-gazing as his father's more recent works.

So what can I learn from this experience as an author?

Well, I haven't released any new fiction in a very long time. But I guess my author takeaway is this: if I choose to break with my usual style or genre(s), I have to expect I will lose at least some of my original readership. If I'm no longer giving them what they came for, I can't expect them to keep coming back.

Also, if I should ever be lucky enough to become a bestselling author, I should do everything in my power to ensure I've got editors who are brave enough to be as ruthless with my work as they would be with a manuscript from any first-time author. In my opinion, King's novels have been crying out for a quality edit going all the way back to Cell, and regardless of his changes in tone and content, a quality edit could've vastly improved every novel he's released since his return to publishing.

Finally, categories matter. I should never categorize my books according to what I think will sell without regard to their actual genres, because it makes readers angry when they feel you've basically tricked them into buying a book they didn't want.

Happy trails, Mr. King. Your work will always be part of the canon of my youth.

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