Big Steve sets a shining example

<i>On Writing</i> by Stephen King (Hodder &amp; Stoughton, &pound;16.99, 238pp)
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The Independent Culture

Stephen King? On Writing? Surely not. The man's a hack. A crowd-pleaser. A shelf-stacker. A box-shifter. Why, by his own admission, he believes that "book-buyers aren't attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will at first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep turning the pages." What on earth could possibly be learned from such a philistine?

Stephen King? On Writing? Surely not. The man's a hack. A crowd-pleaser. A shelf-stacker. A box-shifter. Why, by his own admission, he believes that "book-buyers aren't attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will at first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep turning the pages." What on earth could possibly be learned from such a philistine?

A lot. Of all the dreaded Big Dogs of airport fiction - Grisham, Clancy, Forsyth, Francis, Steele, let alone Archer - he is easily the most resourceful as well as the most likeable, and the one whose prose style provides least offence to the more refined sensibility. In novels like Misery, The Dark Half and Bag Of Bones, he has actually used the inner life of a writer as his subject-matter.

Anyone familiar with Danse Macabre, King's idiosyncratic survey of the Dark Fantasy genre, or with the garrulous introductions written for some of his own books as well as for writers he admires, will know that, after the show, there's nothing Big Steve loves more than to wipe off his scary make-up and hunker down for a chat with the punters. This time, he obviously feels that there's plenty to talk about.

On Writing splits into three parts. The first, "CV", is a chatty literary autobiography (including a "my drink and drug hell" interlude), and the last, "On Living: a postscript", the author's memoir of the near-fatal road accident he sustained during the composition of the central section that gives the book its title. His account of the incident is scarcely more harrowing than his description of how he forced himself to resume writing. "It occurs to me," he writes sardonically, "that I have been nearly killed by a character right out of one of my own novels. It's almost funny."

What Big Steve doesn't mention is that he subsequently purchased the vehicle which almost did him in for the cathartic exercise of smashing it up with a sledgehammer - as if it were some kind of malevolent possessed-mobile like his own Christine's titular Cadillac. What he could not have known is that, by the time On Writing was published, the driver, the iconically lumpen Bryan Smith, would himself be dead.

The "educational" section of the book will prove illuminating for King's fans, but its hard-advice content is strictly of the zero-sum kind. In other words, following his dicta is no guarantee of success, though ignoring them will almost certainly ensure failure. Avoid adverbs; don't staple the manuscript; prioritise situation over plot; make time to read as much as you can; write for yourself and edit for others - that kind of thing. He makes no attempt to snake-oil the reader into expecting revelation of "The Magic Secrets Of Writing" - "There aren't any".

Instead, he bases the section on "two theses, both simple. The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style)... the second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one."

Which means: truly bad writers are beyond help (even when some of them turn out to be bestsellers; this means you, Jeffrey). Truly great writers are beyond explanation (even once the critical theorists have wielded their safe-cracking tools). That leaves the rest of us.

Ultimately, technique is simply a platform upon which a writer builds, and mastering it merely the entry qualification. The rest is simply personal magic, and King has been blessed with more of it than any other writer in his league. And he clearly loves - no, needs - to write.

"Some of this book... has been about how I learned to do it," Big Steve acknowledges in his peroration. "The rest of it - and perhaps the best of it - is a permission slip: you can, you should, and if you're brave enough, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up."

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