Reading on Salon today, I came across Stephen King: You can be popular and good. Author Erik Nelson is much perturbed by another article by a chap named Dwight Allen, which Nelson considers…well, let’s let him say it:
“Allen’s article isn’t just a bile-drenched, meandering hatchet job, it is a hatchet job with a rusty, dull blade, devoid of insight into anything other than the insecurities of its writer.”
Careful when you drop the gloves. The disagreeing side also has guys who don’t hesitate to do so. I had to learn that myself, writing reviews at Amazon. Nelson is good on his skates, has a good jersey grab and throws hard. Plenty of accepted adventure classics were not great successes in their time, and did not grab the literati of the day. It is later generations who start ‘rediscovering’ your literary merit after you are gone, in some cases. I like that Nelson got this hacked off; he writes like he means it. It’s a fun read if you like this sort of thing.
This voracious reader is not enamored of King’s books. We have a good percentage of the full set (all but one volume now for sale on Alibris) and I have only been able to finish one Stephen King book in my life. That does not make him a lousy writer, merely means his genre and style do not attract me. It’s possible to write bestsellers and truly suck as a storyteller (hello there, Dale Brown and Fatal Terrain). We can bring up all the old stuff about how you do not make money writing to please literati, but rather, by writing to please Visigoths who read trash. We can bring up the free-market paradigm, which says that financial success by virtue of crazy sales volume speaks for itself. We could argue about that all year, none of us walking away convinced and none of us changing our habits. We also won’t make one dent in King’s pocketbook. He could buy us and sell us into slavery if he were the type. If I were him, I doubt I’d care too much what the LA Review of Books thought. I might even send Allen a $500 check with the memo line “to help you make rent next month; thanks for the pub.”
While I may not fancy King’s fiction, he wrote what I consider the most worthwhile book on the craft of writing that I’ve had the good fortune to read. I would be many kinds of a dolt if I dared ignore whatever wisdom King had to offer about this pursuit. You may call the title On Writing frank and descriptive, or you can call it generic and uninspiring. Your judgment won’t change the value of the content, which is a Polar Bear Plunge into the way King creates a novel. Deb bought it for me one Christmas. I smiled politely, thanked her, pretended enthusiasm, groaned inwardly, then started reading. The enthusiasm ceased to be pretend. So many novice writers’ Frequent Mistake Points, all disposed of with such candor.
If you are trying to break into fiction writing, and you ask me for guidance, that book is my first recommendation. Most of the time, when people ask me about writing, they don’t really want advice. They want approval for their process. If they don’t get it, they get miffed: “Well, that’s my creative process.” Wonderful–best of luck and success! But please don’t get all chapped because I didn’t bless your creative process, or even told you I thought you were doing it wrong. Just disregard me and do it however you want to. I neither gain nor lose from what you do with the guidance you asked for, but you did ask for it. Remember?
When you no longer try to get everyone to read your stuff even if they show dubious interest, and you no longer argue with authors whom you ask for advice–in short, when you stop needing a steady flow of validation in order to continue–you level up as a writer.