Stephen King doesn’t care much for critics. In his new book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, he likens them to an overweight, flatulent babysitter named Eula (or was it Beulah?) who terrorized him as a child. ”She would throw me on the couch, drop her wool-skirted butt on my face, and let loose,” he remembers. ”In many ways, Eula-Beulah prepared me for literary criticism.”
Yet King can often be his own harshest critic. He questions his qualifications to pen a primer on writing, comparing his monstrously successful novels to fast food: ”Colonel Sanders sold a hell of a lot of fried chicken, but I’m not sure anyone wants to know how he made it.” As he recounts his career and provides insight into his technique, he calls ”Insomnia” and ”Rose Madder” ”stiff, trying-too-hard novels,” ”Maximum Overdrive” ”a stinker,” and himself ”a vulgar lowbrow.”
This elegant volume proves that self characterization wrong. Blissfully brief at 288 pages (”I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit”), ”On Writing” opens with ”C.V.,” a mini memoir so finely seasoned that it whets your appetite for a full scale autobiography. Raised by a single mom after his dad abandoned the family, he grew up addicted to B movies: ”Never mind Snow White and the Seven Goddam Dwarfs. At thirteen I wanted monsters that ate whole cities.”
More harmful addictions would follow. King writes candidly of his past battles with alcoholism (at one point, he drank a case of 16 ounce tallboys every night) and drug abuse (cocaine, Xanax, Valium, Robitussin, NyQuil — you name it). Although he occasionally slips into recovery speak (”I bargained, because that’s what addicts do”), he renders his personal demons as horrifyingly as his fictional ones.
Not surprisingly, two of King’s weakest novels, ”Cujo” and ”The Tommyknockers,” were written at the depths of his dependency. ”On Writing” offers telling glimpses into many of the author’s other works as well. One of his best books, ”The Stand,” took him the longest to write — 16 months for the first draft alone. And he admits that he never liked the title character of his first published novel, ”Carrie” (”that female version of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold,” he terms her with chilling acumen).
”On Writing” soon progresses from the specific to the general, as King shares his commonsense opinions about the irrelevance of a large vocabulary (”As the whore said to the bashful sailor, ‘It ain’t how much you’ve got, honey, it’s how you use it”’), the importance of grammar (it’s ”not just a pain in the ass”), and the evils of words that end in ”-ly” (”I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs”). He also opposes the overuse of the passive tense, pronouns, and flashbacks — the last of which he deems ”boring and sort of corny.”
I’m not sure if he would consider this a compliment, but with such clear cut standards, King would make a sharp literary critic. He’s certainly well read enough for the job, devouring 70 to 80 books a year, and he’s not afraid to express his preferences. Favorites include Elmore Leonard, T.C. Boyle, and J.K. Rowling, whose ”Harry Potter” fantasies he pronounces ”just fun, pure story from beginning to end.” He also aims a few choice barbs; if there’s a lending library in purgatory, King quips, ”it’s probably stocked with nothing but novels by Danielle Steel and ‘Chicken Soup’ books.”
The most haunting section of ”On Writing” comes near the end. ”On Living: A Postscript” recaps the June 1999 accident that nearly killed King. Walking along a Maine highway, the writer was struck by a van driven by Bryan Smith, a man with a spotty vehicular record who had been distracted by his pet rottweiler, Bullet. ”I look down and see something I don’t like,” King recalls. ”My lap now appears to be on sideways.” Despite his myriad injuries — including four broken ribs and a shattered leg — he maintained his powers of observation. After a worker on a rescue helicopter reassured him, ”You’re okay, Stephen,” he notes, ”When you’re badly hurt, everyone calls you by your first name, everyone is your pal.”
King had finished the first half of ”On Writing” when this incident occurred. Completing the book was ”painfully difficult,” he confesses, elaborating that ”because of my cataclysmically smashed hip, sitting was torture after 40 minutes or so.” He suffered through this real life horror story and survived to write about it. Long live the King.