The Literary Assassin

Fiction, fashion, and hand-to-hand combat by Holly Messinger

I believe I wrote this for my persuasive writing class, a/k/a "Writing in the Real World," early 2000. It was supposed to be a classical argument piece. I've taken quite a few "creative" writing courses in my career, but I think I actually gained the most practical knowledge from Business Writing 101, and from Persuasive Writing. I developed this whole theory, based on that class, of how a plot is an argument.

This essay I wrote in a fit of spite and defensiveness. There were a lot of people who thought I was wasting my time and talent with genre fiction. Even my beloved Senior Project advisor, who freely admitted I knew more about writing and marketing fiction than she did, looked me in the eye and said, "So when are you going to stop fooling around and write something serious?"

That stung. It still does, sometimes.

In Defense of Salami

by Holly Messinger

March, 2000
all rights reserved

‹berauthor Stephen King once said, to paraphrase, that he wrote salami. It might be really good salami, but you can't compare it to filet mignon.

Well, why not?

Consider salami for a minute. It's spicy. It frequently livens up an otherwise boring bologna sandwich. It keeps well. That's because of all the salt and seasonings. You couldn't keep a cut of prime rib in the refrigerator more than a couple of days; it would start to rot and smell bad. But salami can live in the fridge for quite a while and it just gets harder and spicier.

Kind of like Stephen King's stories. He may refer to them as salami out of modesty, but I would argue that his works are as valuable and as valid as those of Hemmingway, John Updike, and William Faulkner.

Readers, writers, and teachers of both discipline tend to wince at the mention of Stephen King. The literature teachers don't like him because he's too popular, the writers are jealous because he makes so much money, and God help you if you mention him to a "serious" writing professor.

Currently, the intellectual standard of what constitutes "literature" seems to revolve around the stripped-down, angst-ridden Joe Average fiction of The New Yorker. Mass appeal seems to be the antithesis of serious writing. Therefore, King is disqualified simply because he is the best-selling author in the world. He writes to tell stories, not to impress with his command of the language. His fiction manipulates emotion, rather than appealing to intellect. But consider this: you could say the same things about Shakespeare, with whom all educated people are expected to have at least a nodding acquaintance.

Let's look at Shakespeare's works for a moment. Someone once said that there are only three types of stories: the love story, the war story, and the ghost story. Shakespeare told all of these, and in the case of Hamlet, all three at the same time. Of course, Shakespeare was writing for survival; he knew what the masses wanted and what they would come to see. Sex and violence were staples in his repertoire.

Shakespeare was a master of the language, yes. His iambic pentameter is flawless, his word choice is both subtle and impactful, and his use of dialect is enviable. Shakespeare captured the sense and spirit of the vernacular of his day, in all examples both beautiful and repugnant.

He did the same thing with humanity. Although Shakespeare shows some signs of churning out "formula" plots, since he wrote at least six romantic comedies that involved the heroine being dressed as a boy, at least we can infer that the audience didn't get tired of this ploy. And why would they? The conflict of the characters was built on such basic and common human elements as love, jealousy, fear, insecurity, and desire. Any one of these is enough to motivate a character, but lest we accuse Master William of creating stock characters, remember Iago, Mercutio, Hamlet? None of those characters can be considered simplistic. Whole academic reputations have been built on psychoanalysis of Iago's character.

Now let us consider Stephen King's work. He writes horror. He is the best-selling writer in the world. Every one of his novels has made it to number one on the New York Times Bestseller list. He earned more than $7 million last year.

The numbers would suggest that King's works, like Shakespeare's, play to what the public wants. And why wouldn't they? King's books, although frequently strung together on supernatural premises or plot twists, appeal because the characters are so easy to know. His protagonists are usually the epitome of ordinary: the misfit schoolgirl, the recovering alcoholic, the teenaged jock-with-a-car. And yet King never simply presents us with a character and asks us to accept without question or explanation. He meticulously builds up the how and why of these characters' psyches: the religious fanatic mother; the frustration of failure in one's career and livelihood; the despair of watching a friend sink onto obsession. In short, King understands what makes people tick: love, jealousy, fear, insecurity, and desire.

Like Shakespeare, King's works are exemplary of contemporary culture. Some readers are put off by his casual use of violence and profanity, but probably few people would disagree that American society is rife with both. King's books are current, dealing with current problems, mentioning current names, Presidents, cars, TV shows. Such things can be dangerous to literature, make writing seem "dated." But culture changes so fast. Edgar Allen Poe's stories already sound dated to the modern ear, but they're still readable, and still frightening.

Even the fact that King is a horror writer shouldn't be detrimental to his inclusion in the annals of American literature. Poe, as mentioned above, was primarily known for horror and the kind of speculative writing that would evolve into science fiction. Shirley Jackson and Charlotte Perkins Gilman are both represented in the Norton Anthology of American Literature, both by stories that could be described as "psychological" horror but are disguised as allegories. Recently, King has moved away from straight horror into more psychological venues, such as Dolores Claiborne and Gerald's Game. And some of King's best-received works, for instance, "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption," later made into the critically-approved movie Shawshank Redemption, are not horror at all. Obviously King is capable of telling a straight story, but he prefers to keep his options open.

Some day, four or five hundred years in the future, when writers and teachers of literature look back on the twentieth century, who will be remembered? Updike, Faulkner, Morrison, Oates and others have been hailed as great writers by the critics, and certainly they are masters of their craft, but does the general public read their books? In order to judge literature, we have to place it in context, examine it against the times in which it was written, against the work of peers, against the impact the work had on what came after. The sheer volume and universal quality of King's work render him an important literary force in the late twentieth century, just as we look back on Shakespeare as exemplary of the sixteenth century. King may never be the hallmark of great literature, since the New Yorker crowd seems to have fenced in that market, but there are a lot of delis in New York, and I bet they all serve salami.

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