Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Damn Dirty Stereotypes

I go through phases when it comes to what I read. Sometimes I'll latch onto an author and read 10 of their books in a row. After that, I might not read a book by the same author for several years. In the case of Stephen King, I haven't read one of his books since 1994. I'm not sure I've been missing anything. I know King is the 800 pound gorilla of the horror genre. He's written some incredible stuff-- at least, that's my recollection-- after all, I haven't read anything authored by the man in over 15 years. But I seem to remember thinking that "The Shining" and "Misery" were pretty terrific. Or did I just like the movies? I also know that "The Shawshank Redemption," one of my favorite movies, was based on a short story by King. But when I tried to read his newest release, Under the Dome, I got about 100 pages in before setting it aside in disgust. I know Stephen King has certain political biases. He's famous for ripping on the military with his infamous quote... I don’t want to sound like an ad–a public service ad on TV–but the fact is that if you can read you can walk into a job later on. If you don’t then you got the Army, Iraq, I don’t know, something like that. It’s not as bright. So that’s my little commercial for that. I also believe that his opinion is based on thin air because I married into a military family and my father-in-law-- career military with an undergraduate degree in science and an MBA-- is a living example that King probably doesn't have much first-hand experience on the subject. But that's not really the issue. King can take exception to the military if he wants, that's his prerogative. But it's also my prerogative to rip on his writing if I think it's crap. I don't expect every author to share my personal biases, and I don't choose authors based on that criteria. I read a lot of books that subtly explore controversial issues like religion and politics and enjoy some more than others. I like it when a writer approaches a topic in a new way and forces me to rethink my positions. That's great writing. Unfortunately, a lot of writers fall back on clichés; and "Under the Dome" is full of them. The most glaring cliché is King's handling of religion. I like stories that explore religion and appreciate when writers that take on the subject of religious hypocrisy. But how many times have we been presented with the stereotype of the bible-quoting hayseed with the porn addiction? King has the character, in all it's formulaic glory in his latest offering. (Petty tyrant with political aspirations and stash of bi-racial porn? Check, check and check. I didn't read far enough to see if he was gay too-- but I wouldn't be shocked) It is such a heavy-handed portrayal that I almost couldn't believe that it was written by a best-selling author. But I've had enough experience reading books by once-skilled authors who no longer think they need an editor; and I wonder if that's what's going on here. I can think of no other explanation. Add to that references to military personnel as "pod people" and quotes from Mao, and well, you've got a book that's left the storytelling behind and entered into political rant territory. It doesn't take a genius to realize that the main character, who so happens to be a former military man (with no love of the military of course) is probably going to closely resemble a character from an Oliver Stone movie; but I didn't get far enough to find out. 100 pages was all it took to drive me away... The thing that bothers me most is that there's a worthy story in "Under the Dome." I can recall what I liked about King's writing as I read the book. The man can tell a story. But when he falls back on cookie-cutter characterizations to tell that story, I'm disappointed. I know people are going to argue that stereotypes are there for a reason, the old they wouldn't be there if there wasn't some truth to them argument, and I get that. But isn't that for amateurs? Shouldn't King, as a seasoned writer, be held to a higher standard? I did wonder if my personal biases were getting in the way of being able to approach the story objectively, but after reading the reviews on the Amazon page for the book, I realize I'm not alone in my assessment. It makes me sad for some reason.

13 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

I've always said that King's characters are largely stereotypes. I sometimes wonder if that's not a big part of his popularity. People instantly recognize his characters because of the stereotyped quality to them.

SQT said...

I was much younger when I read his books the first time, so that could very well be the case. I honestly don't remember. I know that they don't appeal to me now.

Genie of the Shell said...

It makes me sad, too, when a successful author gets lazy because he can sell work solely on his name and past glory. I think that King used easily recognizable characters in a more artful way in the '90s than he does now.

I appreciate writers who choose to quit while they're ahead rather than continue to sell crap just because people will see their name on the cover and buy it. Bill Watterson comes to mind. (He totally counts!)

But can I blame an author for ripping out a bunch of less thoughtful work to continue making big bucks? I suppose not... Most of us would do the same. But that sure doesn't mean I will be among the masses standing in line to buy that author's works after the writing has lost its acclaimed value.

Next!

SQT said...

Genie

James Patterson seems to be the most egregious offender when it comes to pumping out garbage for money. I can't believe anyone still buys his books.

King is disappointing because I feel like he's gone backwards instead of forward. Some people say he hasn't been the same since his accident and that his current writing is angrier in tone than before. I don't know though...

Stewart Sternberg said...

King needs to stop the volume and work on the quality. Something I've said for years. However, let's put aside King and think instead about another aspect of your posting..the reader. It's interesting when we read someone who has a political or social view radically different from our own. I tried reading Empire by Orscon Scott Card, a book about a sort of civil war between the left and right (Card himself is somewhat right), and flung it down about halfway.

I think the issue is that we have a hard time when we perceive the writer's own bias coming through the work as opposed to the genuine and legitimate bias of character that is logically and intelligently constructed. The problem is that when the bias comes through and isn't organic to the work, it is more a form of proselytizing. And nobody likes being lectured at......unless you're wearing leather and really red, red lipstick. What the hell.

Good, thoughtful posting SQT

Sullivan McPig said...

I must confess I never really liked King's writing, with the exception of The Marathon (not sure if that's the english title too). I agree with Steward: he really should focus on quality. His ideas are usually good, but he fails to excecute them and then goes on yakking for far too long and takes completely unneccessary sidesteps.

SQT said...

Stu-- You always seem to get what I'm trying to say whether I present it elegantly or not.

I find that my preferences in fiction, fantasy and paranormal especially, don't always fall in line with my political preferences. But it usually not an issue because most authors incorporate a viewpoint through their characters and it's appropriate to the characterizations. I felt like King was saying that everyone who disagreed with his world view is stupid. Not my idea of a good time.

I have to confess, I have only read "Ender's Game" by Card. I liked it at the time. I hear he has gotten pretty intolerant over time though and that it's reflected in his current writing. Also, SMD mentioned that he had posted and anti-gay screed online-- which is a major turn off for me.

Sullivan

I mostly read King while I was college and my opinions were not so firmly set back then. There's a lot of authors I liked back then that I can't tolerate now. But I figured, he's still popular so there must be something there, right? I forgot about his tendency to ramble. My God, the man is wordy isn't he? I also seem to recall that he falls apart when ending a book. I may never know if that's the case here.

Daelith said...

I read a couple of SK books when I was a teenager, but haven't read anything since. Usually the size of his books is enough to discourage me. Figure it will just be easier to watch the movie when it comes out.
As for Patterson. I read one of his Alex Cross books and didn't care for it. I have read three of the Max books and like them okay, but I only picked them up a library sales.

SQT said...

Daelith-- I liked Patterson at first. His books weren't deep but they were entertaining. But he has since started publishing books written by different author (saying they're "co-written") and they are pumped out one after another. I checked one out from the library and it was awful. Quality apparently doesn't matter.

Carl V. said...

I cannot say with any honesty that I am patently against stereotypes or cookie cutter characters, as I know that there are many books, films, tv shows that I enjoy that have those things there in abundance. That being said, I certainly appreciate it when writers try not to do that. I look at King and think that at one time writing that kind of religious character with a dark side might have been edgy, might have not been the stereotype. But it has been done to death by so many people, King being the chief sinner, that it does seem really lazy and self-serving today. Instead of sounding like a character with some depth it sounds like a mad-libs description of a character. I've heard a lot of good things about Under the Dome, it was interesting to see an opinion on the other side.

SQT said...

Carl-- I think what bothered me the most about "Under the Dome" is that it seemed like King has an ax to grind against religion and he's not so much telling a story as proselytizing. I'm not the most religious person. But I think what King is doing is almost deliberately buying into the worst stereotypes and furthering them. There's no intent to be open minded or explore deeper themes. I can't respect that kind of onesidedness.

Carl V. said...

I couldn't agree more.

Andrew Cheverton said...

Hi - I belatedly found your comment on my own blog review of Under The Dome and wanted to thank you for stopping by. I don't blame you for abandoning the book; if I were less of a dyed-in-the-wool fan of King, I'd have done the same. It's the worst thing he's ever written, in a late period of generally poor writing (Duma Key aside).

I would maintain that his output from Carrie to Pet Sematary is flawless, readable stuff. Then it gets patchy. Then it gets really patchy. I don't believe that there's anything of the long-abandoned novel The Cannibals in Under The Dome - it's a very modern, very anti-religion and anti-military polemic.

As to King's use of stereotypes - yes, he's always guilty of that, but what he does (as Buffy did later on TV) is to start with a stereotype to give the reader instant identification, but then layer them indefinitely. It's a great method, but he doesn't do that so much any more.