How Stephen King Became the Charles Dickens of the 21st Century
He's much more than the guy who's never heard of the delete key.
Walk into any used bookstore in America, and you’ll see an entire gaggle of Stephen King books for the price equivalent of a cup of coffee. Even though he’s the undisputed king of pulp fiction, it’s likely critics will soon add “Greatest American Author” to his biography before this century is over.
Between his novels, non-fiction works, and short story collections, King is closing in on his 100th book; but in that time, he’s written a lot of duds. He doesn’t even dispute that. In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2014, he commented on the quality of his writing over the years: “The Tommyknockers is an awful book … The book is about 700 pages long, and I’m thinking, ‘There’s probably a good 350-page novel in there.’”
If 80 percent of his work was complete garbage, though, he’d still be sitting on 20 literary bangers. The Shining, It, Salem’s Lot — all gripping tales of fastidiously spun suspense — are just a few examples of King’s literary success in the span of his 45-year writing career.
Despite the existence of shoddy novels like Rose Madder and Cell, these known failures won’t harm King’s legacy in the same way Charles Dickens was able to outrun his missteps as a writer to become one of the greats. Dickens is required reading in schools because he was “such a great author,” but in his lifetime he endured the same exact criticism as King for being a fairly basic author.
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Dickens’ contemporary Mary Anne Evans (pen name George Eliot) once said of him, “Who, it may be asked, takes Mr. Dickens seriously? Is it not foolish to estimate his melodramatic and sentimental stock-in-trade gravely?” While he is primarily known for classics like A Tale of Two Cities and Oliver Twist, like King, Dickens also had some flops in the 19th century in the form of The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton and The Bagman’s Story and the Story of the Bagman’s Uncle.
It could be argued that King’s books won’t have the same staying power as Dicken’s “blockbuster” hits, but to put it in perspective: King wrote Carrie 45 years ago, where it became a movie just two years later, and recently, in 2013, it was remade into another film adaptation. Thirty years ago, he wrote the cult horror classic It followed by a mini-series adaptation in the ‘90s and a 2017 film starring Bill Skarsgård as the malevolent Pennywise that just cleared $700 million at the box office. An upcoming sequel to the 2017 flick, set to premiere in 2019, is also in the works.
King already has stood the test of time, and he doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
The literary world is changing as the digital world has created a watershed of literature and new authors. There may never be another author like Charles Dickens to surface again, but King seems to be on the path to something rarified and colossal. The chances of him yellowing away into obscurity like the millions of thrift-store copies of The Tommyknockers seems pretty slim.
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