I know someone who teaches classes on how to revise manuscripts. The example she gives her students of a writer who knows how to pace his novels brilliantly is Stephen King. She thinks his ability to create suspense is extraordinary.
Stephen King is seventy-five years old; he was born and brought up in Maine and has lived there more or less all his life. He has written sixty-five novels, five non-fiction books, and over two-hundred short stories. His first novel was Carrie (1974), and his most recent one was Fairy Tale (2022). His next, Holly, is coming out in September.
Until ten years ago, if anyone had asked me about Stephen King, I would have said that he writes horror, and I don’t like horror. Then I read a short description of King’s 11/22/63, in which a man goes back in time to stop John F. Kennedy’s assassination. This wasn’t horror, I thought; it was time travel, a genre I liked. So I read my first Stephen King novel, and it was terrific. After that, I read more King books: Under the Dome, about an invisible force field cutting off a whole town from the rest of the world; then Later and Mr. Mercedes, which are both police procedurals, sort of, although that description does them an injustice; and Dolores Claiborne, told by a housekeeper/companion accused of murdering her employer. I enjoyed them all.
Most recently, I read—or rather listened to—Fairy Tale. I grew up loving fairy tales, and this one is about a present-day seventeen-year-old boy with no magic powers who has to turn himself into a hero to save a fairy kingdom. Six weeks ago, I took the audiobook with me on a three-day walking trip and listened to it from morning till night, barely able to tear myself away from the story long enough to make polite conversation with my hosts. Since then, I’ve bought The Gunslinger, the first volume of King’s fantasy Western series The Dark Tower, which I’m saving for my next long airplane flight, along with the new Donna Leon.
I’m not writing this post to praise Stephen King—although I do recommend that you try one of his books if you haven’t already—as much as to criticize my own snobbery. Before I read my first King novel, I thought of his books as categorically bad, despite all the awards he has won. These days I’m having more trouble classifying some books as worth reading and others as junk.
Of course, there’s a continuum: I’m not trying to suggest that Pride and Prejudice and a Harlequin romance are exactly the same. But Pride and Prejudice is, indeed, a romance—in fact, it’s the quintessential romance novel that created the genre and set the basic pattern for all romance novels to come. It’s also a good example of why classifying literary fiction as good quality and genre fiction (mysteries, romances, science fiction, fantasy, horror, westerns, and so on) as bad quality is foolish. Still, it’s a hard habit to break.
I often read a New York Times column called “By the Book,” in which well-known authors are asked about the books they are reading, the authors they like best, and their reading habits. One of the column’s common questions is if the authors are ashamed of not having read something. (Moby Dick and Middlemarch sometimes come up here!) Another is whether they “count any books as guilty pleasures.”
Some writers refuse to answer this question, claiming that no one should feel guilty about reading any book since no books are junk. In spite of my having just defended this point of view, I understand the “guilty pleasures” question perfectly, because for years I felt ashamed of having read all thirty-four of Georgette Heyer’s Georgian and Regency romances and loving them. My guilt can be traced back to hearing my librarian mother heap scorn on Heyer; Mama was a great fan of mystery and spy novels but not romances. Luckily, I discovered that a lot of people with perfectly good brains, including Booker-Prize-winning writer A. S. Byatt, have read and enjoyed Heyer. Byatt even wrote an essay called “An Honorable Escape” praising her novels.
So, dear readers, what about you? In the spirit of “By the Book,” tell us if there’s any “junk” you like to read, any much-praised classic novel you think is lousy, or any author you’re ashamed of not having read! (I will confess that I’ve never read any Dostoyevsky; I couldn’t force myself through the first chapter of The Brothers Karamazov and never tried any more of his books after that.)
11 thoughts on “Stephen King Meets Georgette Heyer”
Hurray for Georgette Heyer, absolutely devoured the lot, well written, entertaining and perfect escapism. “Csardas” by Dianne Pearson, my favourite book from teenage years and I wish I hadn’t donated it. Confession, have never read James Joyce, and gave up GGMarquez 10 pages from the end, both times. Can’t wait for my new Kim Hays, coming soon!!!
Thanks for the tip—I’ll have to see if I can find Csardas to try! I think the best way to read ULYSSES is to take a course on it, with lectures explaining what you’ve read, bit by bit. I know that’s how my sister read it–and she ended up enjoying it.
Thanks for sharing your insights. I was also a bit prejudiced in my selection of books by people like Mr. King. Thought commercial fiction was too lowbrow but then if you’re a writer wouldn’t you want millions of readers? Diving into some bestseller from a guilty pleasure and analytical view I learned while enjoying. I’ve lately become a big fan of Walter Mosley – ashamed to admit I am such a latecomer to the party!
Trying to figure out what’s lowbrow and what’s highbrow is a challenge, isn’t it? I think Mosely is considered a literary mystery writer!
You’re right about my liking Ulysses, Kim, and it would have been impossible to read without it being assigned it in a modern literature class. My funny one is having been assigned Rudyard Kipling’s Kim for summer reading before 7th grade, hating it, and understanding none of it (he’s supposed to be a spy?). Knowing it was a classic, and knowing that there are other Rudyard Kipling works that I love, I tried again as an adult. And guess what?–I understood none of it, and hated it!
It’s funny you mention King because I’ve never read one for the same snobby reasons and have just in the past few days had two other people recommend him and tell me I was missing out. Guess I’ll bite the bullet…
I never liked Kipling’s KIM either. Hope you can find a King book that you like.
This is an excellent post, Kim! It’s a great reading approach to mix popular fiction with what’s considered great literature. And, yes, sometimes the boundaries between those two categories blur quite a bit. Some of Stephen King’s work is indeed terrific! I’m going to give Georgette Heyer’s work a try. 🙂
Thanks so much, Dave! Have fun with Georgette Heyer.
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Thanks, Kim! I’m sure I will. 🙂
Some weeks ago I was reading my first Georgette Hayer crime fiction – and liked it very much. So I also tried the romances and find them so funny and lovely to entertain me.
I do love Pesticide and just began with the second Kim Hays fiction. For me as a Bernese woman, it‘s strange to read the story in english. But very fascinating!
Thank you very much, dear Kim
How nice to get a comment from you, Sonja! I’m so pleased you decided to try a Heyer romance and that you’re enjoying it. I hope you’ll enjoy the second mystery with Linder and Donatelli. I’m delighted you’re reading it.