Memoir and Being Truthful: Stephen King’s “On Writing”

On Writing

How do I say this without sounding snobby or risking accusations of “hipster!”? I can’t. I don’t like a lot of popular fiction. But define popular, you may tell me. That’s fair. If popular means read by millions of people, placed before it has sold a single copy on the New York Times Bestseller List then you’re talking about many books that I am totally and completely unfair to. I take one look at many of the books, especially fiction, that reach that famous list and just, “Bleh.” No. No way. Some of those books try to get me to read them by being suspenseful on the back cover. That’s exhausting. Sue me. I can barely stomach them any longer. I gave Game of Thrones a decently nice review, but I’m not going to read any more of them. I can’t. If you can, I’m a little bit jealous. Yes, I’m being honest with you. Yes, I am narcissistic.

Stephen King is the very definition of a famous American writer. In some senses he is the definitive American writer (There are numerous people who wish to find a physical representation of that last sentence  and burn it to the ground). King is action, he is suspense, he is love and hate and greed, he is horror, he is sadness, and as far as writers go, if you’re wanting to read a book with a great story, look no further, you have found your author. He is good. He is damn good. The Stand is simply one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is, to this day, the only book that has made me cry. Frankly, as far as character creation goes, The Stand stands alone. It has its own pedestal and we’re just looking to come close to it in some way.

But most of the time, when someone recommends a Stephen King book to me, or an author like Stephen King (John Grisham comes to mind as one author who is always recommended to me. Grisham is fun read. Once or twice. It’s the same trick, a damn good trick mind you, but the same one. Vonnegut is guilty of this, too) I usually just find a way to excuse myself out of reading it. Am I potentially robbing myself of a great experience? Yes, absolutely. Am I most likely saving myself from reading a book that me, myself, and I will literally despise and write some blistering review of on this site and make everyone who reads it that liked that John Grisham book wonder why I am such a book snob? The answer to that is also, YES.

I don’t have a favorite author. If I had to pick, I would end up saying Thomas Pynchon because I have read him more than anyone else. I have recommended a Thomas Pynchon book to exactly two people in the last year. Next to Don Delillo, the man is probably the best living American author (I haven’t read Franzen, so I really don’t even pretend to know) and Hell will freeze over before I recommend Pynchon to more than five people, probably in my life. Generally, people don’t read books to be confronted with zany postmodern ramblings about the impossibility of connection with a character, the fourth wall breaking to remind you that you’re reading a book, crazy and disgusting sex acts removed from any sort of human connection between characters, a mechanical duck that becomes sentient and follows a chef out of it’s need to feel love… none of that jumps on most people’s lists of things they would like to see in a novel. I respect that. I won’t think less of you for avoiding Thomas Pynchon. It’s probably a wise move on your part.

But what does any of this have to do with Stephen King’s On Writing? A lot, really. King spends a notable amount of time discussing this topic as well, discussing the common critiques of his writing. His response isn’t waving his money in front of them and calling them jealous. Most of the time he simply says something along the lines of, “listen, that’s fine and well. But a book is about the story. If you don’t have a story then you don’t have jack.” I do disagree, yet I think my disagreement is moot. King isn’t writing this point to the Gaddises, the Pynchons, the Mary Karrs, or Delillos of this world. Writers like that, they don’t need books like On Writing. They have something to say and the novel/memoir just comes out of them. King spends a small amount of time on this point, noting that Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club is something he cannot even hope to do. It is simply beyond him, and that’s fine.

In the end, for King, writing and reading should be fun. If it becomes work, then it’s probably not for you or you’re doing something wrong. Don’t deceive yourself about it, either. Be truthful. What’s funny is that I read Pynchon, I read Delillo, I will be reading Franzen shortly, for the same reason: I like it. It’s a lot of fun to me. It’s not work, it’s just difficult; but I love the challenge of it.

There’s so much good advice jammed tightly into this book, yet none of it is really meant for a long-winded blog post about the nature of fiction. Whoops. If you think you want to write and don’t know where to begin, pick it up and you’ll be glad you did it. If you’re just a fan of King, you’ll probably get a kick out of it, too. His anecdotes are quite good.

Recommended to: Those interested in the craft of writing, those who write but feel they could use some inspiring direction, and those who need advice and guidance to begin.

Avoid as if it is that upcoming Super Bowl party at your local church where they block the commercials because of Jesus: You already know whether or not you want to read this one. My advice is go with your gut.


4 thoughts on “Memoir and Being Truthful: Stephen King’s “On Writing”

  1. Good review. I got this one last Christmas, and, because I am also a terrible book snob who believes that popular = crap, I avoided it for a while. However, I thought, despite this being non-fiction, the memoir section was engaging and the “toolbox” section was extremely helpful to newbies to writing(like me). So, I think I’ll go pick up The Stand now 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know, I read The Stand when I was in college and I have only fond memories of it. Recently one of my best friends read it for the first time and he’s a fan of Infinite Jest, Gilead, Steinbeck, etc. Literary stuff… and he loved it. I think it’s been his favorite book of the year so far.

      One day I will reread it. Maybe when I get back into the mood for gargantuan fiction.


      • Cool. I’m really a fan of books that mix literary and genre fiction(while simultaneously destroying both labels), and I’m reading Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem right now, which I think falls into that category.
        P.s. I love your book reviews, the book chemist sent me here!

        Liked by 1 person

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