On Friday I began looking at “George Plimpton, Stephen King, and how it can help us readers to know what category of writing we're reading,” with the caveat: “I'm not going to tell you “how it can help us readers to know what category of writing we're reading.” Rather I'm advancing — or, more accurately, baldly asserting — that it can help us readers to know what category of writing we're reading,” harking back to my post last Sunday, “The splendid piece on John le Carré is part of an embarrassment of riches in the new NYRB” — specifically, referring to Nathaniel Rich's piece on Nathaniel Rich's piece on the reissue of George Plimpton's sports-adventure entertainments (Web page free to subscribers only) and to Tim Parks's “The Pleasures of Reading Stephen King” (also free to subscribers only).
We got as far as establishing (at least my rendering of) Nathaniel Rich's argument that, despite George Plimpton's own use of the term “participatory journalism,” his adventures behind the scenes of all those sports weren't really any kind of “journalism,” which probably wouldn't have much interested this Harvard- and Cambridge-educated literary patrician, but were comic entertainments (as perhaps befit this former president of the Harvard Lampoon) in which readers were invited to share the jolly company of George Plimpton. Still to come is a story of genre-bending of a different sort, the distinction establishes — in reading Stephen King's now-completed Bill Hodges Trilogy (the novels Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch, which, as I summarized it, “tell the story of that retired police detective's arduous, dogged pursuit of an especially nefarious malefactor” — “the distance between genre writing and literature.”
Again, let me stress that the difference isn't between “good” or “bad” books; in both cases, the essayists make clear their admiration for and enjoyment of the books under consideration. The distinction lies in the kinds of writing the authors consciously set out to deliver to readers, tempering the kind of expectations we bring to the writing, thereby opening ourselves to particular kinds of pleasure.
I should note that Parks (whom I've been describing as a “novelist-translator-essayist”; he's a terrific British-born writer who has long been resident in Italy and is now associate professor of literature and translation at IULM University in Milan(, in making his case necessarily goes into a fair amount of detail about the plots of the three books, which I'm going to do as little as possible. In fact, I read as little of that as possible. After all, some of us might yet want to read the books. Again, I understand why Parks felt it necessary to do this, to establish what the heck he's talking about. I just don't want to spoil it for any of us. Here's how the concluding book, published in June, is characterized on Stephen King.com:
End of Watch is the spectacular finale to the New York Times bestselling trilogy that began with Mr. Mercedes (winner of the Edgar Award) and Finders Keepers — In End of Watch, the diabolical “Mercedes Killer” drives his enemies to suicide, and if Bill Hodges and Holly Gibney don’t figure out a way to stop him, they’ll be victims themselves.
In his piece, Parks does some harking back of his own, and it resonates for me, because John Leonard was a wonderful writer, with whom a felt a considerable affinity.
“You have to admire a man,” wrote John Leonard reviewing Stephen King in these pages in 2002, who treats “scaring the bejesus out of us” as if it were “a domestic art.”
“But,” Parks asks, “is King really scary?”
Not in this trilogy. Not for me. And I’m hardly immune from being scared by fiction. Reading Hardy’s Jude the Obscure I remember as a terrifying experience. Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground was another book that made me extremely anxious. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Per Petterson’s Siberia, and Peter Stamm’s short stories have all had me extremely fearful for the well-being of their characters.
And horrific as the evil manifested in the Bill Hodges Trilogy is, Parks argues, extreme fear for the well-being of the characters is something that doesn't happen, thanks to “the all too evident mechanisms of genre.”
How many times has [King] written the scene where a character we supposed had been killed wakes up again? Or where our hero doesn’t notice that he is being watched? Or where he or she is physically challenged but nevertheless overcomes endless obstacles to save the day at the last moment?
Rhetorically, all is portentous and emphatic—“it’s always darkest before the dawn”; “payback is a bitch, and the bitch is back”—but the sheer repetition of familiar tropes prevents any real intensity from building up. From the moment we appreciate that only minor figures will be dispatched, we are at ease. “Blood and brains fly in a fan and decorate the doorframe with gaud,” we are told, but if they are not the blood and brains of someone who matters we are unimpressed.
“Yet King’s success and popularity are beyond question,” Parks writes — he's “one of the most widely translated authors the world over, reputed to have sold more than 350 million books.”
So what is it exactly that people are enjoying? Could it be that King is deliberately preventing us from taking his stories too much to heart? It would make perfect sense, after all, for people not to want to be genuinely scared by a book, but rather, as it were, to play with being scared.
In contrasting the work of a number of unquestioned writers of “literature,” Parks writes:
[A] moment’s reflection on our emotional response to these different authors immediately reaffirms the distance between genre writing and literature. One is anxious reading Jude the Obscure, or Disgrace, because one quickly senses that the authors are so intensely engaged in following through their characters’ dilemmas and predicaments that they would not hesitate to have things end badly if that is where their genius leads. There is no easy division into good and evil and no feeling that order need necessarily be returned to the world in the closing pages.
There's an intriguing case in point in the work of Georges Simenon, best known to most of us as the creator of the great deteciive Maigretbut in fact, Parks says, “one of the few novelists who have triumphed in both genre and literary fiction.”
[W]hile I admire his Dirty Snow as a terrifying study in nihilism (Brady Hartsfield [the archfiend of King's Bill Hodges Trilogy] doesn’t come close) it is certainly much easier to settle down with a Maigret, precisely because, at a deep level, with Maigret as with Hodges, nothing much will be allowed to happen. Our hero will remain an indisputably good person; he will not let us down.
And on to the working out of King's Bill Hodges Trilogy. Parks writes of “the childish exuberance” of the villainous action, “a comic-strip exuberance,” “that both keeps us reading and excludes our taking the work too seriously.” (Spoiler alert: Watch out here, reader. I've had to leave in some serious spoilers.)
And it is this mood that will bring us to the point that is the real payoff for the reader in these novels; we good folks, who always feel a little guilty when we do something mean, can relish the utter destruction of our utterly evil enemy without any qualms or misgivings. “Look who wins, Detective Hodges,” cries a triumphant Brady, who has now taken up permanent residence in the body of his neurologist and has Hodges and Holly at his gun-toting mercy.
But the reader knows it is not true. The reader knows that very soon we will be the ones exulting as the villain is crushed into the dirt. Sure enough, in the inevitable melee, Holly, who has never used or held a weapon before and was committed to never doing so, happily fires off a Victory revolver she’s grabbed from the floor. How wonderful guns are when we are firing them at a man who deserves to die, when we can kill without feeling guilty. Game over, Brady.
In the end, Parks writes, in fact in an end note, King reminds readers of his philanthropic ventures and gives us the phone number of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline phone number, “just in case.”
But it’s hardly necessary. The reader closes the book feeling immensely reassured.
If you know how to really do it, it's not a bad way to sell books. And I don't think many of King's zillions of book buyers have ever felt cheated.
I'm not actually much of a Stephen King reader, or even watcher of Stephen King-derived movies (a separate can of worms, I suppose), but I do read a certain amount of detective fiction, and I'm certainly a gluttonous devourer of mystery-type TV stories — and I think the parameters Tim Parks has set out here do have a lot to do with the appeal of the genre for me.
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis