Thriller Guy's pal Larry has been working for several years to clean out much of the junk that has accumulated during his long and distinguished career as an author. Non-writers would be amazed at how this stuff can mount up, particularly files of printed material that seemed important at one time, or actually is still important but no longer needed. In that latter category, Larry came across an article Stephen King wrote 38 years ago for the New York Times. He sent it along to TG because King makes many of the same points concerning writing and publishing that TG has been ranting about for years. So TG is appropriating the piece and putting it up here in all its entirety. With apologies to the NYTs, if they are necessary; ditto Stephen King. Pay particular attention to his explanation of the term Plain Style. TG himself couldn’t have said it better.
October 24, 1976
Not Guilty: The Guest Word
By STEPHEN KING
It was one of those bizarre coincidences that make living in this best of all possible worlds
Madden worked on “Bijou” for six years and made $15,000. I worked on “Salem’s Lot” for about eight months (three months first; three months second draft; two months third draft) and stand to make nearly half a million dollars, if all falls together. This is before taxes, in case any potential kidnappers happen to read The Times.
How does the contrast make me feel? In a word, guilty. But in another two words, not guilty. The two feelings are perfectly joined at hip and shoulder like Siamese twins, and I’m going to try to cut them apart before your very eyes.
As a sustained piece of craft, as an evocation of place and time, as a synthesis of plot, mood and style, Madden’s “Bijou” beats “Salem’s Lot” to the finish line by several lengths—which is a metaphoric and less painful way of saying that “Bijou” is a better book. That’s why I feel guilty.
Not guilty is less clear-cut, and I beg the indulgence of the court (what court? The one that will still be sitting while David Madden and I are looking up at the lids of our coffins with our mouldering hands crossed on our chests) while I try to explain that. It has something to do with accessibility, although that’s not everything. “’Salem’s Lot”—along with other books I could name, “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” and “Trinity” are two wildly contrasting examples—is an extremely accessible book. If “Lot” was the water off a bit of Maine beach, it would be extremely warm water, easy to slip into, pleasant to stroke around in for the next 400-odd pages. “Bijou” is a cooler ocean, and the footing underneath shelves off much more suddenly. To get through “Bijou,” you have to make a commitment; to get through “’Salem’s Lot” all you need is a sunpad and a pair of eyes and you’re in business.
But there’s an art to accessibility, too, although it may be of a more humble sort than that which belongs to the artist who will not hew his peg to fit accessibility’s hole. Warm water books have been given a bad name by the Robbinses and the Susanns—but “Ordinary People” is an accessible book, as is “Watership Down,” “Dog Soldiers” and Tolkien’s Rings trilogy. Robertson Davies, who is perhaps Canada’s accessible white to Joyce Carol Oates’s more difficult black, calls this accessibility the Plain Style. The Plain Style is not flashy, it is rarely practiced in the little magazines, and is rarely represented in the small presses. But to use the Plain Style is always to drive directly at the point, and if the point is minor, the author always ends up with well-advertised pie on his face.
Accessibility is half of it, but I would like to add one other thing to my not-guilty plea, because accessibility cannot stand alone—the directions for cooking a roast may be accessible, but that does not make those directions literature. The addendum has nothing to do with talent either, because the recognition of talent is almost always an affair of luck. Talent can be fully used, as in the case of Faulkner’s best work; half-used, as in the case of the more recent Ross Macdonald novels, or barely used at all—a kind of twitch. Talent has nothing at all to do with money, writing or the wrath of God. It’s the cheapest commodity on earth, with the possible exceptions of mongrel dogs and table salt.
The item which must be added to accessibility to acquit the author is the honest intent to do as well as possible. I’ll give you an example that the more literary-minded among you will probably scoff at “Harvest Home,” by Thomas Tryon. It isn’t a great book, not a great horror novel, not even a great suspense novel. My own editor at Doubleday once told me that his fingers itched to get at it and cut out the deadwood; my guess is that Tryon’s editor at Knopf experienced a similar itch in his own extremities and was rebuffed by Tryon. Rightly so, maybe. Never mind the best seller list. Mind this, instead: Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, it is a true book; it is an honest book in the sense that it says exactly what Tryon wanted to say. And if what he wanted to say wasn’t exactly Miltonian, it does have this going for it: in forty years, when most of us are underground, there will still be a routine rebinding once a year for the library copies of “Harvest Home,” and, I hope, for “’Salem’s Lot.”
For all its huge sales, “’Salem’s Lot” is a humble book. It isn’t going to find a niche in the college bookstores. But for all that, I feel a certain pride in the book. Because I think it can stand on its own after I leave it behind—as I most certainly hope I will.
The honest intent to do as well as possible—that has to stand at the base of any writing career. The object in view is to not let the money sway you from that, or the critics, or the wrath of God. Honest intent has nothing to do with art, one way or the other; art is its own master and talent is merely its whore. Honest intent only applies to the more humble side of writing: the craft. You sit down in front of the typewriter and do the best you can. You play fair. You keep your hands clean. And then, if the money comes:
Stephen King is the author, also, of “Carrie.”