Great American Forewords

I’ve just finished the new Stephen King book and was blown away by it as I was when I began reading King around fifteen years ago. (In accordance with the finest literary bloggers, I shall be monitoring the reviews and anyone who doesn’t share my level of enthusiasm for and exact interpretation of the book can expect a volley of abusive tweets. Beware!)

King’s books generally have forewords and afterwords. The short story collections have long afterwords in which he discusses each piece. This is rambly extraneous material full of half-formed insight in New England speak. King cheerfully admitted at one point that the forewords and afterwords weren’t worth writing: ‘most totally unnecessary and some actually embarrassing in retrospect.’ The effect, if you read each book as it comes out, is like having a friendly, drunken uncle who you run into every few months or so.

King doesn’t need to talk to the reader directly. The book is a long and intimate conversation between writer and reader. You don’t need anything else, and the best writers are those who do as Martin Amis says, and get the reader in there. But I still love the forewords because of King’s undeniable affection for the Constant Reader – this is a guy who loves his readers. Like the continuities and passageways and worlds-in-worlds that loop between the books, it adds to the sense of having grown up with the man. When Callahan drops the scrimshaw turtle, it ‘tumbled to the red rug, bounced beneath one of the tables, and there (like a certain paper boat some of you may remember) passes out of this tale forever.’

The afterword to Full Dark, No Stars is different in that it’s taut and focused, the tone of a man who has been at the wheel for a long time but whose sense of the road is acute as ever. There are parts of it that are too good not to share.

I have very little patience with writers who don’t take the job seriously, and none at all with those who see the art of story-fiction as essentially worn out. It’s not worn out, and it’s not a literary game. It’s one of the vital ways in which we try to make sense of our lives, and the often terrible world we see around us. It’s the way we answer the question, How can such things be?

From the start – even before a young man I can now hardly comprehend started writing The Long Walk in his college dormitory room – I felt that the best fiction was both propulsive and assaultive. It gets in your face. Sometimes it shouts in your face. I have no quarrel with literary fiction, which usually concerns itself with extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but as a writer and a reader, I’m much more interested by ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I want to provoke an emotional, even visceral, reaction in my readers. Making them think as they read is not the deal. I put that in italics, because if the tale is good enough and the characters vivid enough, thinking will supplant emotion when the tale has been told and the book set aside (sometimes with relief).

Here’s something else I believe: if you’re going into a very dark place… then you should take a bright light, and shine it on everything. If you don’t want to see, why in God’s name would you dare the dark at all?

But when it comes to fiction, the writer’s only responsibility is to look for the truth inside his own heart. It won’t always be the reader’s truth, or the critic’s truth, but as long as it’s the writer’s truth – as long as he or she doesn’t truckle, or hold his hand out to Fashion – all is well. For writers who knowingly lie, for those who substitute unbelievable human behaviour for the way people really act, I have nothing but contempt. Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation: bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do – to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street.

And finally:

All right, I think we’ve been down there in the dark long enough. There’s a whole other world upstairs. Take my hand, Constant Reader, and I’ll be happy to lead you back into the sunshine. I’m happy to go there, because I believe that most people are essentially good. I know that I am.

It’s you I’m not entirely sure of.


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