08 July 2012

Re: Your Stephen King Problem

Dear Dwight Allen:

Thank you for letting me know about your Stephen King problem (henceforth, SKP). Many people let these problems go, thinking they're not particularly important or, ultimately, relevant to anyone other than themselves, but  the science shows that letting these problems linger encourages them to fester, and once they fester they can then lead to all sorts of complications and an endless array of other problems (most commonly, J.K. Rowling problems and J.R.R. Tolkien problems, which themselves can lead to entire textbooks of other problems.) Such suffering becomes an infinite sprawl of frustration, guilt, pain, and, often, anti-social behavior and anal warts.

To assess your treatment needs, let's analyze some of your history and symptoms.

Failure to quarantine. It is clear from your history that you remained healthy after occasional contacts with contagions (most notably in New York City [notable site of contagions of all sorts] in the company of a publishing employee [notable purveyors of marketing-induced illnesses] whilst "possibly" drinking "too much bad beer" [do you think there is such a thing as "enough" bad beer?]. You note that your infected friend had alleviated or at least hidden some of his symptoms with regular infusions of Pynchon, Nabokov, and Gass, but as you now must know, these are not effective medicines against SKP any more than a breath of filtered air is a remedy for the carcinogenic effects of smoking a cigarette). You health after said contact was, though (as is obvious now) relative, because had you truly been healthy, you would not now have a problem. I hope this will be a lesson to you in the future.

It is absolutely essential to quarantine bad influences at the moment you begin to suspect their healthfulness. It is always better to be safe than problematized. First, the contagion infiltrated your brain. Then, like an insect laying eggs beneath your skin, it incubated, eventually bursting through to present as full SKP.

You identify your own failure clearly, even if you don't acknowledge it as such: "During my college and graduate school years and then in my post-graduate working life, I’d read, in addition to much commercially successful literary fiction, a fair amount of genre fiction." It is good that you have separated the healthy ("literary fiction") from the somewhat contaminated ("commercially successful literary fiction") and from the pure contagion ("genre fiction"). But exposing yourself to the contagion in any form is, for roughly 75% of the population, eventually fatal. To be honest, your middle category is an illusion, like being only somewhat pregnant. There really is no middle ground. (As we will discuss later, it is very important to maintain only 2 categories for any sort of healthy judgment.)

Notice how many times you return to the contagion once you have encountered it fully. First, Christine, then Pet Sematary, then (saying, "I thought I’d try another King novel, a later one, to see if his writing had changed over the years") The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and 11/22/63. You know, of course, that such exposure is dangerous, and you're now fully aware of the effect, but it's important to be absolutely honest about the steps along the way. Remember, too, that contagion and addiction often present similar symptomatic profiles.

A side note: According to your account, one contagion you did manage to avoid was hipness. You write: "Strangely enough, I’d developed my taste for crime fiction in college, when I took a course in twentieth century American literature that included two novels by Dashiell Hammett. This was a good two decades before it became hip to include genre writers in the American Lit syllabus." It is excellent that you have not been taken in by decades of thinking and writing about cultural capital, canonicity, popular culture, etc. and have instead been able to reduce the complex shifts and reconfigurations of an entire academic discipline into a single expression of scorn. Guarding vigilantly against nuance, complexity, and knowledge is an excellent defense against many contagions.

However, I must disagree with you regarding how well you avoided this contagion. A fundamental symptom of hipness is what some epidemiologists have termed "cool-before-cool": a hypervigilance against trendiness that presents as both a need to be part of trends before they become popular and a distinct aversion to popularity outside of one's own micro-social group. Given my age, I tend to think of it as the "Nirvana-was-shit-after-Bleach" symptom, but countless other examples would also fit.

Weakness and masochism. You write: "One reason that I may have turned away from King’s fiction is that the genres (horror and fantasy) he worked in didn’t appeal to me." Here is the core of your ailment. If you know that an entire class of objects "does not appeal" to you, why do you continue to seek out that class of objects? For some people, of course, there is simple humility and curiosity: it may be that there is not something inherently wrong with the entire class of objects, but rather with the person encountering a few samples of those objects; more and, perhaps, broader experience will help them gain knowledge, understanding, and the skills necessary to appreciate said objects. As you know, such an approach is foolish and destructive, because it leads to contagion. Therefore, your own motivations for such behavior must be either ones of weakness or masochism. It may be that the lure of the contagion was too strong for you (probably because of early exposures that had weakened your immune system) or that you simply enjoy putting yourself through the pain of experiencing that which does not appeal to you. I suspect, from the evidence you have offered, that your case is the latter, because you seem to have a particular, somewhat rare masochistic tendency: to expose yourself to pain and suffering so that you can then express your superiority to the sources of the pain and suffering and, especially, your superiority to anyone who does not present the same symptoms upon exposure.

Class anxiety and grandiosity. I should really refer you to a Marxist psychologist for help with this, but I just want to note here the tendency you have to slip into expressions of anxiety, jealousy, and narcissism regarding economic matters. For instance: "And, anyway, Stephen King didn’t need me to buy his books or even to read them, as did, perhaps, some of my scuffling writer friends. He was doing fine, turning out a book a year up there in Maine, hauling the proceeds to the bank in steamer trunks." The key problem for you here doesn't seem to be with the structures of contemporary capitalism, or even with the speed of SK's writing, as you imply, but rather with the fact that he doesn't need you. You admit this, but seem to resent it. Such feelings are well outside my area of expertise, I know, but it deeply concerns me that you are basing your aesthetic judgments and general happiness on whether a particular writer needs you to buy his books. Repeat after me: You are more important than he is. Do not let your disease define you!

Your SK's problem is not your SKP. Though we refer to it as such when talking with patients and non-experts, SKP is not a single contagion. Rather, it is a cluster of contagions, some of which synergistically contaminate each other, making minor irritations into significant health problems. Thus, your SKP includes your SK's own Status Marker Envy Problem (SMEP), which you accurately identify but do not seem to understand:
Around the turn of the century, I became aware of the fact that King had complained — or was it his publicists and friends who had complained on his behalf? — that he got little respect in the literary world, the world where ninety-eight percent of fiction writers don’t come close to making (if averaged annually, over the course of a thirty or forty year career) a poverty-level living from their work but where prizes and the occasional stipend are handed out.
We can ignore the deflection in the dashed parenthetical of the first sentence there, because SK's own statements and behaviors over the years have firmly established his SMEP. The challenge for you is to recognize that your SK's problem is not your SK problem. You are allowing one of the elements of your SKP to create a tangential infection (I would not be surprised if this is the source of your anal warts). Within your own symptoms, your SK's SMEP is subsumed within your SKP as a whole and is not a determining feature of it. I realize this is complex and hard to comprehend, and I may not be expressing the details well, so think of it this way: If we were to cure your SK of its SMEP, you would still have your SKP; if we were to cure your SKP, your SK may still have a SMEP, but while it might occasionally offer you a bit of irritation, you would not perceive it as a chronic problem of your own.

A strong defense is a transcendental/essentialist defense. The best sign that your immune system is fundamentally sound and that you will be able to recover from your SKP is that you have no fear of universalizing your own idiosyncratic standards:
Among the things I hope for when I open a book of fiction is that each sentence I read will be right and true and beautiful, that the particular music of those sentences will bring me a pleasure I wouldn’t be able to find the exact equivalent of in another writer, that I will be continually surprised by what a particular writer reveals about particular human beings and the world they inhabit. A great book of fiction will lead me toward some fresh understanding of humanity, and toward joy. ... I did feel ... that I demanded something different (something more?) from a novel than I guessed most of the readers of Stephen King did.
These sentences filled me with optimism, because they show the limits of your contamination and your general obliviousness to the narrowness of your thinking. (In our culture, "open-mindedness" is a shallow fetish worshipped by knee-jerk liberals, therapists, college professors in the humanities, and Unitarians. The more narrow your thought and taste, the more precise and honest — who really believes that someone else is more correct than they are, after all? If I considered your truth to be true, I would make it my truth. My god is an awesome god; your god sucks.)

You do an excellent job here of setting up your hopes and desires as a contrast to other people's hopes and desires, particularly people who claim to enjoy SK. You want every sentence to "be right and true and beautiful" whereas they want each sentence they read to be wrong and false and ugly. You want sentences whose "particular music" brings a unique pleasure; they want sentences that are formulaic and unpleasurable. You want surprise of a specific sort: the surprise that comes from revelations "about particular human beings and the world they inhabit"; they hate surprise and want everything to be predictable. Your fiction brings you "fresh understanding of humanity" and joy; their fiction brings them mildewed understanding (or total ignorance) and no joy whatsoever.

Contagions thrive on nuance and rhizomatic thinking — such thinking gives them many surfaces to infect. The greatest weapon against contagion is staunchly Manichean, dichotomous thought. This preserves the necessary narrowness of mind that allows your defenses to marshall their forces most effectively, and it lets you reserve the energy that is expended in complex thought.

Later, you show the healthy tendency to make your subjective experience universal. You write:
It is competently made, in a way that is workmanlike, if hardly fresh or exciting. And perhaps if you are lying on a hospital bed without anything to read, a little dizzy from pain meds, and if a friend brings you this book to pass the time with and if you are able to get past the first hundred pages (the pacing is, once again, off), you might have the kind of reading experience my editor friend had.
This is excellent and encouraging — because you have perceived the pacing to be "off", the writing to be "workmanlike" and freshness and excitement nowhere to be found, everyone else must do so as well. Your reading experience must be everyone's reading experience, your perceptions everyone's perceptions. Your final hypothetical situation is obviously meant for humor, because we know your friend was not "lying on a hospital bed without anything to read, a little dizzy from pain meds" when he read the book. Your irony is scintillating.

Apologistic tendencies weaken your defenses. Amidst the excellent, strong, scintillating and utterly Manichean ideas above, you write, "(Not that this made me morally superior, just more demanding, a high-maintenance reader.)" I hope you can see how your symptoms are making you weak here. You will know you have flushed the contagion from yourself completely when you are able to embrace your superiority (including your moral superiority). Obviously, you think you are superior — "more demanding" is a statement of superiority, but you surround it with the wishywashy nambypambiness of "not that this made me morally superior" and the label "a high-maintenance reader", the latter of which is a bit vague but seems to me to refer either to an annoyingly needy person or a fragile tool. Do not apologize for being superior. Recognize your superiority, celebrate it, and if you're feeling particularly generous, help others to become almost as superior (but not equally, or else you aren't entirely superior anymore).

The next sentence after the one I just quoted is a particularly strong indication of what I am talking about: "Though of course I’d never read a King novel (or story), so maybe I was wrong." Do not admit the possibility that you are wrong! You are superior! You cannot be wrong, even possibly! That sentence is the clearest indication we have that the contagion has weakened you critically.

(Note: The next paragraph ends with a sentence that proves to be rhetorical, but which could have been a sign of your case being terminal: "Was it possible that Stephen King was as good as Diana Abu-Jaber, a writer hardly known beyond the ghetto that American literary fiction seems to have become?" Though the underlying assumptions of the sentence remain properly Manichean, if you had seriously considered the answer to that question to be "yes", then there would be no hope for you. Binary thinking is only a sign of health when you can quickly identify the positive sides of the binary and do not confuse them for the negative sides.)

Another indication of the seriousness of your condition is your willingness to admit past confusions and weakness, for instance by writing that "for those of us who believe that we have developed antibodies to schlock, it is useful to remember that we may sometimes err on the other side, praising certain pieces of high-modernist writing that are actually boring". Do you see the problem here? It's not that, like an overstimulated adolescent, you posit boring/not-boring as a vital critical criterion, but that there is no erring to the other side. There are two sides and only two sides: good and bad! If you have established that pulp/high-modernist is a useful distinction, you cannot then go back and suggest that there is goodness or badness within both sides! You cannot establish binaries of value and then not stick to the values!!!

Sorry — I'm getting a bit excited and resorting to exclamation points. I hope I have made the seriousness of your illness clear.

Ability to mount a critique is only a sign of mid-level health. The ebola virus disease (EVD) carrier knows the EVD is bad; it is the pulpy nature of EVD to be bad for you. Similarly, you know that the SK contagion is bad. Generally, you recognize this to be true, but occasionally you try to demonstrate why SK is bad — bad not only on the literary side of the literary/nonliterary divide, but universally bad.  It is healthy to be able to offer such a critique, for it shows your last-ditch defenses are functioning (and uninfected by nuance), but a truly healthy person would not need to to indulge in critique. One path toward health would be to repress this urge, no matter how much it overtakes you. (If you wish, see my secretary for a list of local Critics Anonymous meetings.)

Synthesis. Let's take a close look at one paragraph, coloring the obviously good (that is, essentialist/universalizing/superior) sentences in blue and the obviously bad (that is, apologetic or seeking nuance) sentences in red, and coloring the sentences that are highly susceptible to contagion as green.
What is it about King’s writing that appeals to so many people? Clearly, King’s readers — many of whom seem to get hooked on him when they are adolescents — don’t care that the sentences he writes or the scenes he constructs are dull. There must be something in the narrative arc, or in the nature of King’s characters, that these readers can’t resist. My sense is that King appeals to the aggrieved adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adolescent, or the aggrieved nerdy adult, who believes that people can be divided into bad and good (the latter would, of course, include the aggrieved adolescent or adult), a reader who would rather not consider the proposition that we are all, each of us, nice good people awash in problems and entirely capable of evil. King coddles his readers, all nice, good, ordinary, likeable people (just like the heroes of his books), though this doesn’t completely explain why these readers are so tolerant of the bloat in these novels, why they will let King go on for a couple hundred pages about some matter that has no vital connection to the subject of the book.
Here we can see how the contagion infects your thought. The first sentence here is susceptible to contagion because someone of your superior judgment really shouldn't indulge a question that could lead to empathy and understanding of people who have a different perspective from your own. However, your defenses prove strong, because in the next sentence, you patronize the inferior readers, people who, as you know, are indifferent to bad writing. The next opens you up to contagion again through a question that might lead to empathy, sympathy, or basic understanding, but the beginning of the next sentence seems to avert that by again patronizing people with a different reading experience from your own. However, we see the effect of the two weak sentences: the entire middle of your paragraph is terribly contaminated with confusion. As you know, simple good/bad perceptions are the key to healthy thinking. But you have become so sick that you sometimes forget this. That your immune system remains functioning is proved, though, by the final sentences, where your patronizing contempt for different perspectives and experiences returns. There's also a sign of health in your return to simple dichotomies — you do not complicate your challenges-its-audience/flatters-its-audience with any acknowledgment of the ways most fiction flatters its audience or with a relativistic statement such as Robin Wood's "...whether a film is or is not effectively subversive depends very much on who is watching it".

Prognosis. Though you indulge in a bit too much critique to be truly healthy in the final third of the statement describing your SKP, the last few paragraphs show excellent progress, making me suspect your immune system has almost fully recovered from the struggles it went through. You are able to identify illness in someone who certainly seems sicker than you (poor, pitiful Arthur Krystal) while also identifying some elements that may eventually lead him to health ("Krystal seems to regard King as a good enough 'guilty pleasure,' though he cites nothing specific about King’s writing [other than the fact that a literary magazine and The New Yorker have given him space] that might persuade a reader that the praise of his work by the literary establishment is in any way justified"). You make an excellent generalization and state it as a rhetorical question: "By bestowing rewards on writing that is not all that good, has not the literary establishment lowered standards and pushed even further to the margins writing that is actually good and beautiful", always a good technique. (Please, though your friend who first contaminated you read some Gass to innoculate himself, don't, whatever you do, read Gass's essay on the Pulitzer. Keep to the simple binary: pre-King literary awards good/post-King literary awards bad. Progress/decadence. Civilization/savagery. Rinse and repeat.) Also in your favor, you ignore that previous winners of the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters included Oprah Winfrey and Ray Bradbury, neither of whom is a high-modernist, and so your Manichean tendencies are proving strong, wiping out the diseases of nuance and complexity.

Finally, your last paragraph, is exemplary in its invocation of Roberto Bolaño, Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace, and Thomas Pynchon — Great Men, all, and half of them dead at a young age, which is even better, because that way even if they ever did pulpily write more than a book a year, now they can't! (Good for you for not including Joyce Carol Oates. She messes everything up, writing 72 books/year and having girl cooties.) Also, you show compassion for your son, proving you are a positive male figure in his life, unlike your wife, who probably encourages him to read comic books and clearly doesn't recognize your immense superiority. You should show it to her more frequently, the way you've shown it to the rest of the world with your long, hard-minded writing and hard-suffering reading, engorged with its demanding standards, stiffened by experience and ready to penetrate with its insights, ready to burst with fervid, fertile imagination.

In summary, though you are not quite a model of health, you are well on the path to becoming so, and I hold out the greatest hope that by openly and honestly expressing your problem, you may serve as a warning and role model for others whose health has yet to be reanimated.


Dr. Herbert East, M.D., D.D.S, J.D., B.S.