My Stephen King Problem.

Still the champ, but no longer the king?

I used to read a lot of books and now I barely read any books.   It’s not that I have less time to read.   It’s more that there are less books out there I want to read.   For this, I blame Stephen King.

Call him a prolific hack.  Call him the master of modern horror.  Call him the Microsoft of the literary world, but even if you don’t read his books,  you have to go out of your way to not to stumble across a film or television mini-series written by King or a host of wannabees all inspired by him (or just bitin’ off his style).

King is a goofy looking geek  who became The Man.    I would feast  upon a new King book the way a zombie devours some nice juicy brains.   Whenever Big Steve came around with his latest effort in horror, depravity and gore, I was there to get my stuff, scurry on back to my lair, and flop into a chair for several hours for a really good scare.  A really creepy book like Salem’s Lot wasn’t something I wanted as the last thing on my mind before going to sleep.

Lately though, King’s books have become a chore to get through instead of something to look forward to. I’m not sure exactly which book it was that did it, but at a certain point all the weak points of his writing style overwhelmed the virtues.  But that’s King.  He’s a successful writer who knows he’s not a great writer.   King admits it himself when he said,  “I don’t take notes.  I don’t outline.  I don’t do anything like that.  I just flail away at the goddamn thing.  I’m a salami writer.  I try to write good salami, but salami is salami.  You can’t sell it as caviar.”

King is a man uniquely familiar with his weaknesses and limits as a writer.  Never was that better demonstrated than in Dreamcatcher, a truly wretched novel King crapped out after his near-fatal auto accident in 1999.   King had to be high when he came up with this bizarre story of four friends fighting an alien invasion by “ass weasels.”     Yep, these booty snatchers take over their human hosts by going in through the out door while they’re on the crapper.  Priceless.

How can you not like someone who is richer than God and knows what  made him that way is writing books that are the literary equivalent of Big Macs?   King’s utter lack of pretension and awareness that he’s slinging cheeseburgers instead of art for the ages is part of his charm.   King wants so badly to be seen as just an ordinary guy who caught a break that he practically humps your leg to get you to like him.  At least when he’s not trying to scare the hell out of you.

King says he’s thinking about a sequel to 1977’s The Shining focusing on a 40-year-old Danny Torrance and what his life has been like since that very bad winter in the Overlook hotel.   King isn’t entirely certian that’s a story he really wants to tell saying, “Maybe if I keep talking about it I won’t have to write it.”

Keep talking Steve because if  while you’re not sure you want to write it, I’m already sure I don’t want to read it.

When you’re as prolific and popular as King is you’re going to crap out a book or two or three and a bad Stephen King book is a truly painful thing to get through.   The last book of his I completely finished was Cell, which started off scary enough with people driven into homicidal maniacs by a mysterious signal sent through their cell phones and ended up with King ripping off his own  far superior novel about a post-apocalypse journey across America, The Stand and ended with flying zombies and an ending so bad I literally found myself checking the pages to make sure one wasn’t missing.   My next trip to Half Price Books, Cell is going with me as a trade-in toward something else that doesn’t suck as hard.

My Stephen King library is made up of three categories: The ones I’ve read and love (Salem’s Lot, The Stand, The Dead Zone, Night Shift, The Shining)    The ones I’ve read and kept though I didn’t like them much (Rose Madder, It, The Tommyknockers, Christine) and the ones I bought and haven’t read (Hearts of Atlantis, Needful Things, Desperation, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon).    Then there’s books such as Insomnia, Duma Key, and Dreamcatcher, where their flop stench and bad reviews precede them and I don’t want to confirm how hard they blow.

King’s got a new novel, Under the Dome, that’s getting some good reviews, but it’s long and my experience is when King goes long it gets bad.  Here’s a list of his biggest behemoths:

The Stand: 1,153 pages
It: 1,138 pages
Under the Dome: 1,072 pages
Insomnia: 787 pages
Desperation: 690 pages
Needful Things: 690 pages
Dreamcatcher: 620 pages
Duma Key: 607 pages
The Tommyknockers: 558 pages
Bag of Bones: 529 pages

I’ve only read completely three out of the ten books so I’m not encouraged by Under the Dome coming in as the third longest book King has written.   The cost ($35) slows me down, but it’s the sheer size of the bastard that puts me on “pause.”   Any novel that long has got to grab me by the short and curlies and hold my attention from the jump otherwise that’s going to be a pretty expensive doorstop.

The last time I got jazzed for a King novel, he burnt me like toast with Cell.  Dare I give him the chance to break my heart (and bust my wallet) once again?

Hell, can I even attempt to read 1,072 pages without slipping into a coma?

Perhaps I can survive the experience if I follow the advice of another writer whose advice in how to approach Under the Dome was, “read fast and skip every other word.”

“Atlas Shrugged” and other exercises in wretched excess.

At over 1300 pages this is NOT "light reading."

At over 1300 pages this is NOT "light reading."

My son wants to read Atlas Shrugged for an essay contest sponsored by The Ayn Rand Institute. The problem for him is going to be the essay is due by September 17 and at over 1300 pages Atlas Shrugged is by no means “light reading.”

I fear my son has chosen a book waaay over his head. 

I haven’t read the book since I was in college and even then it was something I approached as a chore to get through instead of a pleasure to read. There are great books and there are long books and Atlas Shrugged is a very long book that has become great over the passage of time. I consider it to be in that pantheon of works which are admired more than they are read. 

I feel the same way about all the Toni Morrison novels my wife owns.   There was an amusing essay in The Guardian that observed, “Life’s too short for thousand page novels” and I couldn’t agree more.   Carrying around a book the size of the Yellow Pages will build up your arms, but writing a long book doesn’t mean it’s a  well-written book.

mumble...mumble...wheres my donuts...mumble...

"mumble...mumble...where's my donuts?...mumble..."

There are exceptions of course.  When I was into reading about World War II, one of my favorite books was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer, all 1,245 pages of it.  But I first read the book it when I was a teenager.  I’m 53 years old now.  I don’t have time to plow through a 1000 pages.   I doubt I’d even want to.

I used to be a huge Steven King fan.  Whenever he’d crank one out (and he cranks out a lot), it wouldn’t be long before it was on my bookshelf.  But Big Steve made the mistake of confusing long with good.  The Stand (823 pages) was one of my favorites.  But  It (1138 pages) wore me down.  I endured the book as much as I read and skipped a lot of pages trying to get to something readable.

When he was starting out King wrote lean and sparse (Carrie, 199) and once he broke through he began to stretch a bit (The Shining, 447 pages, Salem’s Lot, 439 pages) without losing his way.   Too bad went he became Stephen King the brand name anything he crapped out was sure to sell and that includes some of his absolute worst shit such as Insomnia (704 pages) and Needful Things (792 pages). 

When I was a Stephen King fanboy, I went through his books like they were Spider-Man comic books. I dug the hell out of The Stand in 1978 when it was 823 pages, but not as much when King came out when the complete and uncut version in 1990 that bulks up to 1153 pages.

Making a long book even longer doesn’t mean it’s better. Everything isn’t improved just because there’s more of it. Apocalypse Now is one of my favorite flicks of all time, but when Francis Coppola came out with Apocalypse Now Redux with an additional 49 minutes it just made a long movie longer and not a marked improvement over the admittingly flawed original. Marlon Brando still was a fat, mumbling, lumbering slob.

Yes, some books are as long as they need to be as for a rare few, that’s the only way they would work. Writing tight works in journalism, but in writing novels, less is not always more.

Still, my experience is inevitably the longer a book is the more likely it is to drag and meander at some point. When I read King’s longest book, IT, I found myself just flipping pages at times and when I finished, I knew I’d never read IT again.

"You try playing for six hours and you'll need a nap too."

"You try playing for six hours and you'll need a nap too."

But at 822 pages, Moby Dick remains The Book That Almost Made Me Hate Reading. I wouldn’t make my worst enemy read it. It’s duller than daytime television and kills more brain cells.   

 The only thing I can recall even close to that level of tedium are The Sun Bear Concerts by Keith Jarrett.  That’s TEN records of solo piano improvisation (now condensed down to six CD) and at 397 minutes in length it’s a great way to kill a slow day…very slowly.

Now I’ve never heard The Sun Bear Concerts, so I can’t comment on whether it’s any good.  For Jarrett fans I’m sure it’s a fun way to spend over six hours.   For everyone else listening to that much solo piano might get a wee bit boring around about the third or fourth hour. 

Reading a long book is a labor of love.  You have to invest a lot of time to go that deep into a novel and as my eyes grow weaker, the lenses stronger and my free time more scant,  I’d rather go through a few books that top out at 500 pages than one that goes over a thousand.  

I hope my son enjoys Atlas Shrugged, but I’d be surprised as hell if he does.  Ayn Rand’s writing is drier than toast.