In our Biographies We Need series, Signature writers look at the lives of some extraordinary individuals and ask the nagging question: Where's their definitive biography?
In the novel The Shining, the isolation, frustration, and futility of the writing life cause writer Jack Torrance to suffer a nervous breakdown and go after his family with a mallet. (A haunted hotel helps.) In life, pursuit of literary fame has been kinder to Stephen King.
In fact, he has been so wildly prolific and successful, his career would surely cause Torrance to have murderously jealous fantasies even if he wasn’t being egged on by malevolent ghosts. Adding insult to injury, King is not just commercially successful -- he’s the rare popular writer who has managed to transcend genre and win accolades from the literary gatekeepers. He won a National Book Award for lifetime achievement, and his stories have been published in The New Yorker and honored with the O. Henry Award. Not bad for a writer whose books feature vengeful cars possessed by demon spirits, psychopathic St. Bernards, vampires, ghosts, and assorted demonic ectoplasm.
While King’s appetite for the macabre is evidently insatiable (he has also published several novels under the pseudonym Richard Bachman), it’s a fair bet most readers don’t read King’s books for his otherworldly creations, but for his human ones. Starting with Carrie, the 1974 novel that allowed him to quit his day job in an industrial laundry and write full time, King has crafted tales of ordinary, fallible, sympathetic folks who find their humanity tested when confronted by the forces of evil. The writer treats his characters with gentleness, and generosity, right up to the moment they get their faces ripped off.
So who is this guy, who seems to want to embrace the world and at the same time annihilate it with hellborn wrath? To fans, the facts of his biography are well known. He was born in Portland, Maine, and was raised by his mother. King has said that he knew he wanted to be a writer from the time he was a child, and also that as a boy, his favorite thing was being scared. He went to the University of Maine, where he met his wife, Tabitha, and the two suffered some lean years, with King writing at nights and on the weekends, occasionally selling stories to magazines, until Carrie’s success. After that he was off and writing, producing horror novels, stories, and comic books at a brisk clip.
He was also drinking prodigiously, and later said he could barely remember writing Cujo, his novel about a crazed dog that terrorizes a mother and her son. He got sober, and kept writing, until, in 1999, he was hit by a minivan while out for a walk, and was seriously injured. While recovering he finished the memoir/how-to book On Writing, then announced he was going to put down his pen, though his retirement turned out to be brief, and he continues to publish novels, novellas, story collections, comic books, and essays.
Throughout King’s career, the question of whether or not he is a “real” writer (as opposed to a genre writer) has dogged him, and the more successful he’s become, the louder the protests from his detractors. Harold Bloom called him “an immensely inadequate writer,” and former Simon and Schuster CEO Richard Snyder deemed King’s books “non-literature.” While the writer himself seems understandably fatigued by the question, his unique position in the world of letters makes him the ideal candidate for a critical biography that will address the question honestly and fairly.
Because of his stature and success, King serves as a stand-in for all the writers of chick-lit, crime novels, young adult literature, and fantasy who are often marginalized by critics while adored by readers. There are several biographies out there (as well as the autobiographical parts of On Writing and personal essays), but there is no definitive work that examines both the writing and the writer from a serious, critical perspective, and there should be. A serious biography would be another blow to the notion of “genre” writing as inferior to (or even separate from) “real” literature… isn’t that a scary thought?