The odd salience of older books: Stephen King’s “On Writing”

My novel The Dead Zone arose from two questions: Can a political assassin ever be right? And if he is, could you make him the protagonist of a novel? The good guy? These ideas called for a dangerously unstable politician, it seemed to me—a fellow who could climb the political ladder by showing the world a jolly, jes’-folks face and charming the voters by refusing to play the game in the usual way. (Greg Stillson’s campaign tactics as I imagined them twenty years ago were very similar to the ones Jesse Ventura used in his successful campaign for the governor’s seat in Minnesota. Thank goodness Ventura doesn’t seem like Stillson in any other ways.)

On Writing was published in 2000 and in the book King says he wrote it in 1997. When I first read it, nothing about this passage stood out. Today, everything about it stands out. I wonder if The Dead Zone has seen a sales bump in the current political climate.

What Stephen King does and most writers should do:

Don’t be put off by the first sentence of this excerpt:

A serious engagement with a wide range of social and political issues forms the undercurrent of much of King’s work, but it is free of cant or dogma. His characters speak up, never lapsing into thumbsucking anomie. King himself, rather than picking at emotional scabs, taps directly into the underlying marrow, and, though there are notable exceptions, a consistent message resonates: ‘It really isn’t about your parents; it’s about you’re afraid.’ King’s balm is his generosity as a storyteller. ‘He’s got to be the most casually dismissed great storyteller we have,’ his friend the humorist Dave Barry believes. ‘What makes writing interesting is the story. Except for English majors and English teachers, most people like a story. And Steve just has the capacity to see a story everywhere and in everything.’

It’s from “What Are You Afraid Of? Terror is Stephen King’s medium, but it’s not the only reason he’s so popular—and so frightening” in The New Yorker, and although it’s hidden behind a paywall, if you’d like to read the whole thing, send me an e-mail and I’ll see what I can do.

I’d like to say something wise to extend the thoughts expressed above, but I don’t have any. You could take some lessons from this—avoid dogma, think about stories—but they’re ones most artists and would-be artists probably absorb over time.

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