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Author Study: Stephen King Curated by Eric Zhang '18

A LibGuide about Stephen King.


Why the Controversy?

As a writer, Stephen King's commercial success is undisputed. His novels and short stories are bestsellers, and many are further adapted for other media such as movies and television.

However, his acceptance among academic circles as a writer whose works deserve a higher level of critical merit and attention is a hotly debated topic.

There are two main reasons for this:
His work is too lowbrow. Many consider commercial success to be mutually exclusive with literary success – essentially, King can't be successful, simply because he is too popular. Although it is easy to assume that a work that is widely popular may be devoid of literary meaning, doing so is a fatal mistake. 

The quality of the writing itself is poor. This is the more serious of the arguments against King. In King's case, it's an issue of content vs form.

Content and Form are two essential elements of a literary work. Put simply, content is what is being communicated through a literary work, while form refers to how this content is conveyed.

In King's work, content is typically valued over form, and his style is not as good as some other writers. His sentence structure, diction, and punctuation seems spotty at times.

However, his content is extraordinary. Characters are developed as three-dimensional, fallible and relatable. The plot is ingeniously thought out and well-executed.

Although it is true that King's literary form may only be adequate, it is equally true that literary content is equally - if not more - important than form, and that King's writing makes up for its form through its well-executed plot and content.

Criticisms and Analysis

Literary Themes and Motifs

Death and Fear – These two are the bread and butter of any horror writer. Every one of King's works involves these themes in one way or another, although some feature fear and death more than others. For example, death plays a relatively small role in The Shining (it is seldom mentioned or discussed explicitly, and does not come into play until the climax of the story), while fear is omnipresent in all parts of the book. 

Memory – Memory is an oft-recurring theme in King's novels. The past of each characters adds depth and meaning. Jack Torrance in The Shining is tormented by the faults and regrets of his own personal past throughout the novel, which help drive on his descent into madness. In It, the repressed memories of the seven protagonists serve as the driving force behind the novel's plot – as each character recalls more about his troubled childhood, he is increasingly driven to defeat the demon that caused his trauma.

Childhood – King's novels tend to place childhood and adolescence in high regard, or at least give it a great deal of attention. The Shining, Doctor Sleep, Carrie and The Stand all involve child protagonists who are unnaturally, perhaps supernaturally, gifted. The power of childhood innocence is often explored in Stephen King's writing, but more often, King tends to explore childhood itself. It, The Body, Rage and others bring childhood and adolescence into the spotlight.