I interviewed the author of The Writing Family of Stephen King not too many days ago, and had a thoroughly enjoyable time doing so. I'm always happy to chat about King, and when I can do so with someone who clearly has the zeal Patrick McAleer has, it is cause for a bit of celebration here at the offices of The Truth Inside The Lie.
At that time, I'd not read the very book that prompted me to seek McAleer out and try to land a interview, mainly on account of how I didn't own a copy. That has since been remedied, so as an overdue postscript, I thought I'd chime in with a brief review of the book.
First off, let me dispel any tension that might be building up by answering the question "Bryant, did you enjoy The Writing Family of Stephen King?" Yes; yes, I did. I read it in two nights, which is fairly speedy for me; I tend toward slowness as a reader. Anytime I read a book quickly, it means I've enjoyed it. I bought my copy of the book via Amazon, and it came in the same shipment with the second season of Game of Thrones, which I'd purchased on Blu-ray. The urge to sit down and spend three or four hours in Westeros is quite strong, so the mere fact that I instead opted to spend my free time those two nights reading this book tells you much about my level of enjoyment.
I've answered one of the two crucial questions that I ask about any book or story I read. Now, the second: is it a good book?
You'd think this and "Did you enjoy reading it?" would be redundant, but they aren't, really. When I ask "Is it good?" what I am really asking is whether the book adds anything of worth to the world. Entertainment value is a non-factor in that equation; or at least it is for me. I have an entire bookcase filled with Star Trek novels, most of which are almost certainly crap, but would nevertheless entertain me if I were to go and grab one of them and begin reading it. Why? Because I love Star Trek. Doesn't mean those are good books. Some of them are; most of them are not. They offer nothing beyond simple diversion.
Sometimes, simple diversion is good enough in life. Even for lucky, prosperous people, life can be a thing that needs escaping once in a while; hence, I have no beef with people who like to turn their brains off and allow themselves to be merely entertained once in a while. Because dude, so do I.
There's more to life than that, though. And I tend to gravitate toward entertainment that lives a double-life, working as entertainment but also rewarding investment by adding something worthy to the world in which it exists. I devote a fair amount of time to exploring the idea of what makes some of these works worthy.
As such, I enjoy reading the opinions of others who are doing the same thing, especially when they are doing so -- as Patrick McAleer is in The Writing Family of Stephen King -- at a far greater level of skill than am I. That is entertaining for me.
And, for the record, yes, I definitely think McAleer's book adds something of worth into the world. Only, perhaps, into a tiny sub-subsection of an already somewhat restricted subsection of popular culture; but, nevertheless, I think it is a genuinely worthwhile work of criticism.
For those of who who failed to read the back cover, here's the concept: Stephen King's wife Tabitha and their sons Joe and Owen are published authors whose work deserves more attention both popularly and critically, and this book seeks to at least begin the process of redressing the latter of those two concerns. Over the course of nearly two hundred pages, McAleer examines numerous works by Joe Hill and by Tabitha and Owen King, and makes persuasive arguments about the strengths and weaknesses of each in turn. He does this with a relative minimum of comparison/contrast with the works of Stephen King; there is a tiny amount of it, but by and large, McAleer allows each author's work to stand on his or her own.
Which, really, is not too difficult a task; of the three, only Joe Hill can be said to write in a style that would be comparable to Stephen's; and that only because Joe, like his father, is primarily a writer of dark fantasy. (In terms of their actual writing styles, I don't find father and son similar at all.) In a sense, it is not necessary to allow each of the Kings' writings to stand on their own; they stand on their own whether we frame them that way or not.
It is, of course, totally possible to ghettoize one of the three by insisting on looking for traces of their more-famous family member within their work. I've seen plenty of people online do this. "Oh," they might say, "Stephen King's son has a book out? Is it about killer cars? It's about a kid whose grandfather is obsessed with Al Gore?!? Skip." Or they might say, "Maybe if Stephen King dies, Joe Hill can start writing Dark Tower books." And for all I know, he might; but if that is the only thing you can think of in regard to Joe Hill, then frankly, you've done a shitty job of reading Joe Hill's work.
This is not Joe Hill's fault; it is YOUR fault.
Important to remember, that.
Patrick McAleer clearly has no such hangups; he treats each of the Kings as separate writers, with distinct obsessions and clearly defined pros and cons (mostly pros). I don't agree with all of his conclusions; for example, I was much more impressed by Joe Hill's "Twittering from the Circus of the Dead" than McAleer seems to have been (he is positive on the story, but seemingly feels it to be a bit of a gimmick). And whereas he was left a bit cold by Hill's Heart-Shaped Box, I was rather blown away by how much I enjoyed it.
However, I found that for the most part, I agreed with him on the vast majority of the points he made. He points out that Owen King's stories have a tendency to be overstuffed, almost as if concepts and characters that could have formed the basis of full-length novels were being condensed into page-counts far shorter than their potential. I nodded at this and said "Mm-hmm..." in deep agreement.
If there is a downside to the book, it is two-fold: (1) it is for a very limited audience; and (2) it is written in academic style, which is not necessarily the most approachable type of writing if you are unfamiliar with it.
Let me address those concerns; this will likely answer the question of whether The Writing Family of Stephen King is a book for you or not.
Firstly, the matter of the book's target audience: it is aimed at people who are fans of one or more of the three writers about whose work it is written. By definition, that is a much smaller audience than it would be if it were a book about the works of Stephen King. Joe Hill's audience is growing steadily, and Owen King's is likely to expand considerably when his first novel is published next month. Tabitha King's audience may have peaked; and if so, she is doomed to remain relatively obscure except insomuch as she is married to Stephen. That means that more than fifty pages of this book are written for a very small audience indeed.
None of that, of course, lessens the book's worth. McAleer's assertion is that while her audience might be small, and her books might have flaws, Tabitha's work is nevertheless extremely worthy of praise, and manages to be so utterly on its own merits. And in fact, you could make the argument that McAleer's book has a secondary audience: people who are devoted fans of Stephen King who are curious about the books written by his family members, but who have perhaps not yet been curious enough to actually read one.
For that group of people -- which, probably, includes most of my own readers -- I would say that that makes The Writing Family of Stephen King a highly useful book. It will tell you plenty about all of Tabitha King's novels, and will also discuss numerous short stories written by both Joe and Owen. You'll either be interested enough at that point to pick up a copy of, say, Small World or We're All In This Together or you won't; but you'll get enough of a flavor of each writer's work that either way, your curiosity is likely to be sated. And McAleer touches on just enough comparison points with Stephen's work to be useful in giving the Stephen King fan entry points for placing each of the three authors in context. The downside? It won't be enough to be of keen interest to most King fans, even those who enjoy reading books about King's work. That's unavoidable, though, and I give McAleer huge credit for not pandering to attempt to increase the audience for his book at the expense of its content.
The second downside I wanted to address is the issue of the book's academic leanings. Now, as I've mentioned before from time to time on this blog, I am a college graduate with a degree in English Lit. I was a merely decent student, but I was good enough that I certainly have some familiarity with academic writing. It can be dry, dry stuff, especially if the topic at hand is some thoroughly canonized author, or a particularly high-minded "literary" writer.
Let me be clear: there's nothing wrong with that. Academic writing is generally intended for consumption by academics, and they have a style that works within their circles of publishing. However, when a non-academic -- or someone who is not familiar with that style of criticism -- steps into that world unwittingly, it can be very off-putting. For that reason, it is important for potential consumers of this book to understand that it is written in a style that may not necessarily be to their liking.
That said, I think McAleer does a very capable job of straddling the line between making the book readable for a non-academic audience and keeping it consistent enough to qualify as academic writing. That can't be an easy task to complete, and I remember enough of the time I spent writing English papers to have some admiration for the degree to which he pulled it off here.
Still, for some readers, he will perhaps not have gone down the road away from academia quite far enough to make the book immediately accessible. To those readers, I would say this: if you are interested in the topic, but unsure whether the book's style will suit you, give it a try, and just be patient. I think the rewards merit the expenditure of effort on your part.
Oh, and you'll also need to know up front that -- as is standard-operating procedure in academic writing -- McAleer has no compunctions about considering and discussing the entirety of the text. For those of you who aren't academics, that means that he writes with no consideration toward keeping his readers free of spoilers. His work here is analysis, not overview; and analysis cannot exist in a spoiler-free vacuum.
So, with that all said, my final thoughts on the book would be that while I feel its audience is necessarily limited, for those readers who fit the bill, this is a critical work that is well worth your time. Odds are, it will make you interested in reading the works of one or two or even all three of its primary subjects; and if you're already a reader of their work, it will almost certainly give you a better understanding and appreciation of that work.
In other words, I approve.