Snotty

After I'd finished Duma Key, I went hunting for reviews to see what other people thought of it and made my way over to the New York Times. There, I found a review by James Campbell - no! Don't click on that link! Not yet, finish reading this post first. Trust me – there’s a very good reason that I’m trying to stop you from clicking on the link and it’ll become apparent in a moment.

To say that Mr. Campbell doesn't like the book is the understatement of the century. I think it's fair to say that he loathes it with a burning fervour. Or rather, he appears to be holding a grudge and have a taking this opportunity to express his feelings in a newspaper (much better than therapy!).

The review starts quoting King's speech made in 2003, when he was awarded the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In it, he expressed how he wished that this could be the start of building bridges “between the so-called popular fiction and the so-called literary fiction.” At the end of the review, Campbell quotes this speech further, when King, in his usual blunt (and, quite frankly, funny) manner, asked those who stay away from popular fiction, like John Grisham, Clive Barker, etc., if they think “[y]ou get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?”. Campbell is clearly rankled by this, writing that the “discourtesy of suggesting that his listeners’ reading habits were directed by snobbery rather than taste, the remark posits a view of a culture based not on the best that is thought and said, but on the highest returns at the cash register.” And maybe it's just me, but assuming that popular books and quality are mutually exclusive seems sort of based in snobbery.

In between these two bookends of wallowing about hurt feelings, Campbell ruins the book. There is no other word for it. He dips his pen in poison and proceeds to eviscerate Duma Key and in the process lists every major plot point. Every single one, including the details of the climax.

I'll admit this upfront: Duma Key is not perfect. There are a few places - but only a few - in the book where I wish King’s editor would have suggested spending a little more time to fully flesh out an emotional response or a slightly wonky bridge, but in the grand scheme of things, I'm prepared to forgive him that because the rest of it is so wonderful. But that is my opinion. Someone who doesn't like the book may disagree and I will vociferously support their right to disagree, because art - and that includes novels and even popular novels - is highly subjective.

However, correct me if I'm wrong, but is it not a sacred duty of a reviewer to not spoil the story for others? A review should contain an outline of the plot in broad strokes and never, ever talk about the ending. And this is what infuriated me in Mr. Campbell's article. It is his prerogative to not like the book. He is within his right to think - and say - that Stephen King debases popular culture and that the masses who buy his books are Philistines. He's also in the lucky position to be paid to say these things (I should be so lucky). However, this does not give him the right to ruin it for everybody else. It's bad form, it makes him appear to be a bitter, resentful man who's been waiting five years get the chance to pay Stephen King back for suggesting that he's a snob (as clearly, he took King's 2003 speech very, very personally) and in the immortal words of my friend Dawn: "the owie is showing". And to my thinking, this review exactly proves King’s point.

Campbell ends the review with adapting a remark from The Picture of Dorian Gray, suggesting that "there is no such thing as popular or literary fiction. 'Books are well written or badly written. That is all'", which is a pretty snotty remark in a pretty snotty artcile. And it makes me sort of sad for him, because he seems to have built up a wall (of pretension?) that blocks him from recognizing writing with soul when it's right in front of him, instead choosing to look down his nose at writing that sells in general and horror in particular.

Books are well written or badly written. This is true. You can take a ridiculous plot - and most novels in the horror genre are pretty ridiculous if you think about it too much - and ask two different writers to create a story. One will produce something lifeless, the other will make it sing. The mark of a well-written book is whether it will suck you into the story and make you care about the characters, less about the plot itself. In that respect, it doesn't matter whether you are reviewing Shakespeare or Stephen King - the similarities of great storytelling puts them in the same category.

Of course, that last sentence would probably give Mr. Campbell an apoplexy.

A more conventional review by Janet Maslin here

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