by Matthew Peckham
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Climbing the Tower columns.
…a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a leaf, a stone, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.
In the complex, erudite, often ouroborean critical "understructure" that pulses and mills and pronounces behind the vast engine of mainstream book reviews and media sound bites, Stephen King has been proclaimed many things, from hack horror writer to important populist synthesizer to Dickensian literary artist. I recall a conversation with a former mentor, a talented writer with an exhaustive knowledge of the publishing industry, whose response to my affection for at least a few of King's books (notably an odd little poem entitled "Brooklyn August" tucked away inauspiciously at the very end of Nightmares and Dreamscapes) was that they simply could not be Literature, capital 'L'. That, by definition, something easily consumed by the (the implication was "unsophisticated" or "untutored") public at large simply could not qualify as "good," or at least certainly not "artistically worthwhile." This person then admitted he had not read any of the books in question; I silently forgave him this oversight (blame it on the present conflagration of information, to reference German critic Walter Benjamin, and proportionate paucity of time). I also forgave my mentor his undisguised populist bias for two reasons: first, his goal was less to belittle the popular than to promote what's washed aside by the great consumerist tsunami, and second, because so much of what he did consider artful (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Barth, Jorges Luis Borges, Flannery O'Connor, Grace Paley, Tillie Olsen, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, Anton Chekov... a list of writers that goes on into the hundreds) were authors and stories I responded to, some of them even reasonably popular. Nevertheless, I didn't buy into the notion that a grave, inexorable line separated someone like Stephen King (in principle, regardless of the tale in question) from those many beloved and canonized others. Any survey of establishment lines reveals this boundary vibrating like an invisible force-field from institutions to conferences to coffeehouse chic, drawn by highly esteemed academics and writers, exhibiting articulately, in my opinion, and with panache, centuries of systemic indoctrination. I wasn't buying it. It was too simple, too dismissive, too conventional, and too convenient.
Take this most familiar and seductive of platitudes: real art ain't popular. Why? Like all sweeping generalizations, the answer is fundamentally elitist: because popular is tantamount to that which is easily assimilated by what Alexis de Tocqueville called "the beast" and Friedrich Nietzsche called "the herd," i.e. the so-called stupid empty-headed consumerist culture at large (barring of course the ones doing the defining, who conveniently escape such definitions). Popular art is purportedly targeted at the lowest common denominator and designed to be a commercial silver bullet, beaucoup bucks, instant moola, simultaneously creating a marginalizing tyranny that fosters an atmosphere of dis-inclusion by knocking out the "more sophisticated" and "less comforting" competition. This purportedly nasty, subversive material plays in art house rags and coffeehouses, winning all the trophies, while the ubiquitous so-called "bread and circuses" entertainment lulls the blithe and bucolic, and maps out near the ninth circle of hack hell.
Somewhere along the line, I began to believe it (it is, after all, a powerful and seductive culture of its own). I abandoned King, as well as John Campbell, Clive Barker, J.R.R. Tolkien, Tad Williams, Frank Herbert, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Ursula K. Le Guin, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip José Farmer, Isaac Asimov, William Gibson, Ray Bradbury, Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, C.S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and a thousand others (the notable exception being Kurt Vonnegut, whose Slaughterhouse Five was first taught to me by a priest who liked to punch students hard on the arms in a high school class bizarrely named "Catholic lit"; in academia Vonnegut had managed not to end up in his proverbial drawer, probably because, aside from being a solid wordsmith, he was rescued by that postmodern cult sprung from the modernist movement of the early twentieth-century that yet associates experimental" and "complex" with "good" or "better than"). Leaving behind genre fiction, I began studying literary theory (not a very popular medium, to understate) and "the canon," and turned away from the culture at large.
In 1997, Stephen King released the fourth book in The Dark Tower cycle; when it arrived in the mail, I was preparing to dismiss it. I was in the middle of outlining Friedrich von Schlegel's theory of romantic ironies and drafting a paper on displacement, escape, and time in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. What could Stephen King tell me? I'd discovered the The Dark Tower in high school, just as the Plume trade edition of The Drawing of the Three was hitting shelves, some five years after the first book, The Gunslinger, was released in hardcover by Donald. M. Grant, and nearly a decade after the original five stories comprising that latter book were released sequentially in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. I'd emerged from grade school with nearly all of King's books under my belt, but The Dark Tower was... unexpected. It caught me by surprise, drove me to read everything I could by Robert Browning, and even (ironically, in view of his recent comments) to pull down a fat book of criticism by Harold Bloom on the English poet. King's tale of a lone gunslinger questing for the linchpin of space and time across a mad landscape of ideograms and sigils and desiccated towns, a geography of dimensions and times grinding down and predicated on tarot palaver, was bizarre... utterly weird. I finished the second book, The Drawing of the Three, in 1987. In 1991 I stumbled across a hardcover limited print edition of a book called The Waste Lands. It was wrapped in plastic and went for $40, more than most standard hardcovers would go for then or now, and out months in advance of the mass print edition. This was my indoctrination, age nineteen, into the world of limited and collector's editions. The book itself continued King's fantastically outlandish romp, filled with literary allusions and symbols and cryptic references, and beginning mysteriously to draw in ideas, themes, and even characters from previously unrelated King books. In 1997, then, it was with trepidation that I read Wizard and Glass, fourth in The Dark Tower cycle, half-expecting to find that six years of academic rigor were destined to dethrone, once and for all, this last piece of King to which I was clinging. I was mistaken, and not a little surprised to find as I picked up the previous books and re-read them in sequence that the tale and its word had grown in my estimation, not diminished. The story was magnificent -- something written as well as anything I'd encountered by Gene Wolfe, Thomas Pynchon, Mervyn Peake, China Miéville, John Updike, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Lucius Shepard, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, and the entire gamut of the New Wave/Fabulist/Weird. Owing much to my experience of Wizard and Glass, I dipped back into the outgrowth of the late 60s nouvelle vogue movement led by Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Thomas Disch, and others, now a kaleidoscope of factions, some accepting King as a good or in some cases even excellent writer, others eschewing him with scorn and lengthy anti-populist diatribes.
Michael Moorcock's important and well-argued December 2001 "Christmas Editorial" for Fantastic Metropolis arrived at a dark moment, championing subversive and marginalized writers at a time when being subversive (in the national U.S. sense, for instance) was being portrayed -- implicitly or overtly -- as of all things anti-patriotic. In pop-culture, the illusive social complexity of J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien had engulfed the artscape, promising escapist thrills to Americans who, as The Onion sardonically put it, "longed to care about stupid bullshit again." The central theme of Moorcock's editorial, a response to this sense of artistic capitulation, can be distilled from the following selection:
As I've said many times, if people didn't like repetition, they wouldn't like music. An animal feels easy if it can take the same route to the waterhole every day and not risk being eaten. To the mass audience, repetition is exactly what comforts them and what they will pay most for. What makes Tolkien the mass market success that Peake is not is that Tolkien can be smoothly assimilated into the culture. His stereotypes slide easily into the world of popular fiction. Peake's grotesques are the opposite of Tolkien's fairy tale regulars. Peake's characters and plot are brilliantly idiosyncratic. Tolkien's entire ensemble of greybeards, evil forces and humanoids is instantly recognised. It's the familiar, with a little gloss, that sells in millions, not the awkwardly unfamiliar. Tolkien's stated aim was to tell fairy stories, Peake's stated aim was to break windows. Tolkien has mass sales, Peake has more likelihood of longevity. For Peake was an original visionary where Tolkien was manipulating existing images.One might argue that, according to the law of percentages (as in market sales), much of Stephen King's writing would also qualify as something that "can be smoothly assimilated into the culture... slide easily into the world of popular fiction...[and be] instantly recognized"; King is, after all, probably the most "in-print" author in the history of the world, not counting religious texts. King, according to John Clute and John Grant, "cannot be said to have contributed much new to the world of fantasy" (by "fantasy" Clute and Grant mean his horror material, which they also describe as dark fantasy). Thus Moorcock would likely describe King, like Tolkien, as a manipulator of existing material, implying that reworking a thing is beneath the serious artist's attention.
I can go with Moorcock for quite a walk down this road. It resonates with me. It speaks to my own disenchantment with films like Independence Day or books like Atlas Shrugged (the latter ranks right up there with The Lord of the Rings as one of the "greatest novels ever" according to one consumer poll). To put it bluntly, there is a tremendous amount of crap in circulation, and I'll merely reveal my own biases if I start ticking off my personal list here. You've no doubt read much of it yourself, and also no doubt have your own exhaustive lists. Suffice to say there is a great deal about which Mr. Moorcock and I agree.
The problem with Moorcock's seductive chain of reasoning, however, is that there is a hidden chink in the armor of the seditious. If the original problematic assumption: that genre fiction is "subliterary," is flatly ignorant, then the second: that popular fiction is inherently "safe" and anti-subversive, should at least summon a healthy dose of skepticism. The question that needs answering is: are there in fact such things as new images? Not to put too fine a point on it, but after even a cursory examination of The Golden Bough or The Hero With A Thousand Faces, isn't any notion that Peake's Gormenghast, Miéville New Crobuzon, Wolfe's Urth, or Le Guin's Earthsea, are "original" simply another kind of illusion, a trade of one arbitrary standard for another? If I create a world of donkey-headed hermaphroditic bipeds attempting to genetically recode the space/time architecture of the universe, whose social strata are organized according to the level of stink of their flatulence, or who converse according to sigils formed from expulsion of their seed -- a story no one I'm aware of has yet told -- have I created art nouveau, or spectacle? I'm not disputing the quality or complexity of these authors or the iconoclastic nature of their works, but I have a serious problem with a claim to merit fortified by the illusory bulwarks of "originality." At this point in civilization, with a perspective covering the epic sweep of millennia, aren't all narratives reworkings of existing images and philosophy? And let's not forget that subversion is a two-way contingency. It seems a bit shortsighted to me, to imply that the relationship between art and the public at large is a one-way street, that the responsibility for its reception as either sugar-coated and likable or barbed and unsettling lies with the author alone, and not the reader, a piece of the equation I think too easily and often dismissed based on a sweeping and pretentious generalization about the level of sophistication of the so-called masses. Besides, subversion alone is hardly a qualifier of artistic merit. Revolutionaries tend merely to replace what they've overthrown with their own brand of dogmatism, their own rituals of inclusion and exclusion.
The critic Walter Benjamin proclaimed in his essay "The Storyteller," reprinted from his 1968 work entitled Illuminations (written much earlier; Benjamin died in 1940), that "the art of storytelling was coming to an end."
Less and less frequently do we encounter people with the ability to tell a tale properly. More and more often there is embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed. It is as if something that seems inalienable to us, the securest among our possessions, were taken from us: the ability to exchange experiences.Benjamin, like the poet Robert Bly after him, believed in the primeval function of the tale, the story, the word in the narrative of human existence, its tribal nigh mystical power to transcend generations and cultures, it's necessity for sharing or grasping experience. Stephen King's The Dark Tower cycle embodies a crucial aspect of this tradition, one that balances allegory and subtlety with the power of experience and King's ability to relay an entire lifetime of it, from and to the culture at large. Says Benjamin:
Storytelling is always the art of repeating stories…the storyteller joins the ranks of the teachers and sages... [is able] to reach back to a whole lifetime (a life, incidentally, that comprises not only his own experience but no little of the experience of others...). His gift is the ability to relate his life; his distinction, to be able to tell his entire life. The storyteller: he is the man who could let the wick of his life be completely consumed by the gentle flame of his story.In the final telling, to say that Stephen King's The Dark Tower cycle is or is not a great work of art is perhaps meaningless. Such lofty proclamations will not penetrate the subjective divisions of interpretive communities that weigh the word and their dedication to it differently. If many of Stephen King's other books are primed with narrative compulsiveness and gothic reconstitutions of ancient mythologies, King's apprehension of the "everyman" at the core of those tales must not be dismissed according to some arbitrary hierarchy of values celebrating books that flourish with fresh geographies and not those that probe common human experience in the now, and to which imagistic innovation -- present or not -- is beside the point. Consider King's often startlingly realistic portrayal of the everyman: the alcoholic undertaker, the unemployed carpenter, the small boy hectored by bullies (to paraphrase Walter Mosley's description of a few of King's characters at the 2003 National Book Awards). In the context of cultural apprehension -- King's of his own -- and with a nod to Benjamin ("his gift is the ability to relate his life"), The Dark Tower series is nothing less than a literate synthesis of King's accumulation of daily lives, hopes, and dreams, a great hulking tower of American ideas and idioms and motifs distilled into seven books which validate, at least for me, his importance as an American writer and storyteller.
Matt Peckham lives in Nebraska and Iowa. His first book, a guide to Mike's Carey's Lucifer, will be published by Wildside Press. For more about Matt, check out mattpeckham.com
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