Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Review of "The Writing Family of Stephen King" [by Patrick McAleer]

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.

Ah, but enjoyment is not the entire story, is it?

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.

13 comments:

  1. In terms of similarity and difference, well, from what I can see, Hill and (Steve) King tend to have certain similarities in that both concern themselves with what happens when people try to "unplug" from life at large and the consequences that entails, in that in both King and Hill lack of commitment seems to act as a kind of thematic doorway to let the monsters in.

    Here's as good a question Mcaleer raises about evil in the good characters of the Tower series. Mcaleer himself says that's maybe too strong a word and suggest more of scale off moral corruption and the places the characters sink or rise to on it.

    Any thoughts? My first thought was he must be kidding but the more I read on, the more I began to think, well, he might be on to something at least.

    To be fair, Mcaleer, combined with Robin Furth's take on the nature of Mid-World as fiction come to life might have contributed to my very ironic reading of the last three (now four) book inasmuch as I could imagine Mike and the Bots watching the proceedings with the occasional jab at the screen.

    ChrisC

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    1. Yeah, I'm gonna need to read McAleer's first book -- "Inside the Dark Tower Series" -- at some point, too.

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  2. Looks like I'm going to have to pick up a copy of We're All in This Together one of these days. My fear is that it'll turn out to be show-offy, look-how-clever-and-funny-I-am stuff. At least, that's the vibe I get from what I've read about it. But, still, I'm intrigued.

    I appreciated the comments you made about Star Trek novels. I haven't read an ST novel in twenty years, and I'd be hard-pressed to name most of the titles or recall any of the plots, but they were fun, right?

    I'm enjoying the regularity of your posts. Keep up the good work.

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    1. Thanks! I'll try...

      Regarding "We're All In This Together," I think that criticism could theoretically be aimed at the title novella with some accuracy. I like it a lot, but I do not doubt for a second that it would turn a lot of people off. The short stories that form the rest of the book are much more accessible, I'd say.

      Regarding "Star Trek" novels, man...I read a LOT of those from ages, say, 12 to 19. What I remember is that there were definitely some good ones, but that two out of every three were utterly disposable. And if I thought that at age 19, the odds are that they will not have aged well at all. One of these days, though, I hope to go back and re-read a bunch of them and find out for sure.

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  3. As for Trek, did I use to be a fan? Well, a regular viewer once, I think I've moved on since.

    If I had to lay blame for why I moved on I'd point Jeri Ryan. Don't get me wrong, in fact I think she and Robert Picardo were the best actor and actress in their series. The thing is, how should I say, I think they made the mistake of making her character too smart.

    Here's what I mean, once or twice the writers had her point out some flaws in Starfleet logic, specifically claiming to value freedom and life and then turning around and using coercion and making people do things the Starfleet way when clearly it's against their will.

    The more I thought on that, the more I realized that was a very good point, in fact I've read reviews of other Trek fans who've pointed out the same thing.

    And so what I kept seeing is Ryan's character would make some comment or or a few lines that somehow were totally at odds with the Rodenberry model of ethics and yet she came out sounded more ethical. In fact it's like several times her performance and the writing are sort of like a knowing wink to the audience, as if to say, "See how crazy this all is?"

    In light of the fact that one of the Voyager writer's went on to revamp Battlestar Galactica, I can't help but think of Ryan and her character as a step in that direction and the writing for her character must have been the work of a writer disgruntled by, I don't know, some kind of closed-mindedness on the part of the Trek franchise.

    Either wya, the more I thought about it, the more I began to see gaps of logic even Spock couldn't ignore in the way the characters acted. Technically, that's where I thought it would be interesting if a series revolved around Ryan's character in much the same vein as noted above and yet with a more satiric punch, taking things to a point where Federation regulations don't jack.

    I don't know, maybe i was reading too much into things. I do know i thought it would be neat to have finale in which she meets the creator of the Borg and, surprise of surprises, he's a very disgruntled human in the vein of Brando's Col. Kurtz

    ChrisC

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    1. You make some good points. Thing is, even the original series failed on numerous occasions to actually follow its own philosophies. Kirk violates the Prime Directive at every available opportunity; Spock frequently acts in incredibly illogical ways; and so forth. Good lord, the sixth movie has half of the crew suddenly turn into anti-Klingon racists!

      The way I look at it, it was a fundamentally flawed execution from the get-go. So in that way, "Voyager" -- which is a show I like a lot more than many Trekkies seem to -- is kinda consistent.

      By the way, for the record: Ronald D. Moore, who later spearheaded the revamped Galactica, DID work on Voyager briefly, but the majority of his Trek work was on Next Gen and (especially) Deep Space Nine.

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  4. Chris, I think I like your idea of who runs/created the Borg better than the Borg Queen stuff they came up with.

    It's encouraging to see this discussion, though, as I hope to launch the USS Captain's Blog any day now and have been thinking along these very same lines.

    I really need to track down a novel or two by Tabitha King - been meaning to for years. I finished "We're All in This Together" and was really impressed by it. I think it and Hill's "20th Century Ghosts" are damn strong pieces of work. Their next novels are eagerly awaited. If "Double Feature" and "NOS4A2" are as strong as they appear to be, I think the future is pretty bright for both authors.

    I've been trying to think of another writer whose offspring are publishing this kind of work. It seems pretty exceptional. But, I'm a bit overtired and am probably overlooking someone obvious... can't think of any, though.

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    1. I'm enough of a Stephen King nerd that I would probably buy his sons' books even if I thought they were crap. It makes me very happy for that not to be the case.

      In fact, I can honestly say that I am legitimately a fan of both writers on their own merits. What must the odds against that happening be? I honestly don't know of any notable authors who have sired successful authors. I'm sure there are some, but I can't figure out what phrase to use to successfully Google it!

      Either way, the odds are against it; and the odds of it happening with TWO children must be infinitesimal.

      Looking forward to the USS Captain's Blog!

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  5. Excelsior! I wondered if they might have it, and here it is:

    http://joehillfiction.com/

    Be sure to check out Joe Hill's blog

    ChrisC

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    1. Hill also has a Tumblr page:

      http://joehillsthrills.tumblr.com/

      It's well worth checking out.

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  6. It's unfair for people to assume that his kids or wife would have the same writing style or even the same writing interests as King. I've never tried to actively seek out Tabitha, Owen or Joe's works before but now I am very very curious! I bought 20th Century Ghosts a while ago but barely remember any of the stories (except the one about the inflatable boy - how can you forget that?) so I'll have to reread. We're All in This Together sounds very promising, actually.

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    1. Michele, I sometimes think that the only reason I even have this blog is so I can waste time designing banners like that one! I've currently got a library of 105 of them. But few of them tickle me like that one from "Danse Macabre" does; that one, I love.

      As for your point about it being unfair to assume King's family members would have the same style... I could not agree more. I hope I avoid falling into that trap, not just with King's family, but in any other situation that is even vaguely similar. It must be kinda frustrating for Tabitha, Joe, and Owen; it would frustrate me.

      I'm currently about a third of the way into Owen King's new novel, "Double Feature," by the way. It is terrific, and is so unlike his father's work stylistically that they may as well come from different planets.

      Except...

      ...there IS that intense focus on having the story be about the characters first and the story second. In THAT regard, Owen is very much his father's son.

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