Writing Right with Dmitri: Going Beyond
Just now, I watched Stephen King on a talk show. He's looking good for 72: rangy, feisty. The denim shirt and jeans suited him. It occurred to me that Mr King is a likeable person. You'd enjoy hanging out with him. It also occurred to me to wonder, for the 100th time, why his books usually irritate me so much.
I know why: words on a page lend the writer an artificial gravitas. From this vantage point, one expects wisdom. Or I do. Stephen King has not, to my knowledge, ever written a sentence that I would regard as wisdom. He would probably retort that this isn't his job: his task, which he performs expertly, is to create creepy moods and prose equivalents of jump-scares and entertain the heck out of everybody. He does this. The fact that I am not entertained because I expect a tale of liminal experience to say something important is nobody's fault but mine. So be it.
I suspect a lot of Mr King's success as a novelist is due, not only to his considerable skill, but also to the fact that he has the same attitudes about life as most of his readers. He's not a prophet crying in the wilderness. Prophets crying in the wilderness tend to end up in niche markets. So it goes, as Mr Vonnegut used to say from his personal wilderness.
Right before I saw Mr King yucking it up with Stephen Colbert, I had happened to read an article in Times of Israel about the premiere of a film version of Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird. The premiere, which took place in Venice, must have been a remarkable experience. People ran screaming from the cinema. One man was in such haste to escape what he was seeing that he tripped and fell on his face. Several other cinemagoers panicked when the door they'd headed for wouldn't open. The movie was that horrifying.
What is The Painted Bird about? The Holocaust. Not the camps: the Eastern European countryside. The book is fiction. Kosinski based it on the war years in Poland. He lived through them, hiding in a Polish village with his family because they were Jews. People don't like the book any more than they like the movie: it's too horrible. In his lifetime, they accused Kosinski of making things up.
Making things up is what novelists do.
By all accounts, Kosinski wasn't a comfortable person to be around. Unlike Stephen King, he might not have been someone you wanted to hang out with. He had friends, like Roman Polanski (another traumatised child survivor) and Zbigniew Brzezinski. According to most people, Kosinski lied a lot. His book Blind Date is a surreal mixture of real and extravagantly imaginary events. He hid behind tall tales.
So did Mark Twain. Possibly for the same reason. In Twain's posthumously-published autobiography – the one where he tells as much of the truth as he can stand to – he gives us a picture of his childhood on what was, after all, a frontier. It was hair-raising. He saw men gunned down on the street. He had frightening experiences. One of the local doctors, who could mildly be described as 'eccentric', embalmed his young daughter after her death – and hung the body in fluid solution, in a cave near Hannibal, Missouri. Twain saw this as a kid. If you're a Tom Sawyer fan (I'm not), you'll remember that cave. That's what really went on in that cave.
Twain's mother said her son 'embroidered' his stories. I would, too, if they were that awful. Kosinski did this a lot. We learn from these writers. They go beyond our everyday experiences. They challenge us to stretch our minds. They share their traumas the best way they can.
I've known people from Eastern Europe who grew up under communism. Some of them are incapable of telling the straight truth about anything. Being dodgy is a survival mechanism. I understand. Apparently, the New York publishing world and its satellite academia did not. They demanded that they had a right to Kosinski's life, in factual form. They criticised him. They published charges of dubious merit: that he plagiarised, that he had too much help with his English… Whoever heard of a Polish writer who wrote English that well? Oh, Joseph Conrad, never mind.
The stress of all this criticism probably contributed to his suicide in 1991, according to his friends. He wrote a note: 'I am going to put myself to sleep now for a bit longer than usual. Call it Eternity.' Not a comfortable man. Twain could be uncomfortable, for all he made people laugh. His life was filled with tragedies.
What is the lesson here? There isn't one. You pays your money and you takes your choice. You can take the approach that the purpose of writing is to entertain people by moving the counters around. Like a sport, you can score points for the most original plot idea this year, or the cleverest surprise moment, or whatever. But I would urge you to stretch yourselves and try some of the uncomfortable stuff, at least once in a while. You might be surprised by what you learn.