05 March 2012

Sellers : 11/22/63

Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner 11/8/11
849 pages

I've always had a spot on my shelf for King's work. Say what you want about his books, they are entertaining good reads. I always place him in the same category as Philip K. Dick. A sort of pulp writer who manages to insert depth and artistry into the genre.

When King won the National Book Awards Lifetime Achievement in 2003 Harold Bloom, that bastion of ivory towerism, had this to say:

[the decision is] another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life...What he is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis.

My reaction to Harold Bloom.
Book-by-book I find King to masterfully change his style and genre. He is not only a horror, sci fi, or thriller writer. He can jump from Carrie to the Dark Tower books to this new book 11/22/63 with an ease that few writers manage convincingly.

The alternate history novel is not a new thing. It has been done to death. The earliest example is Livy's Ab Urbe Condita which was written between 27 and 25 BC. It examines an alternate 4th century BC where Alexander the Great expanded his empire westward and meet Rome.

Two of my personal favorites are The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon. Both are about alternate WWII outcomes. The 'Nazis win the war' plot is one that is revisited often. It pops up in books by Stephen Fry, Robert Harris and even Newt Gingrich. One of the best episodes of the original Star Trek (The City on the Edge of Forever) follows this plot and brings in Joan Collins to guest star.

Star Trek has used the alternate time line story numerous times. They have gone so far as to detail an alternate history for their 'mirror' universe in the shows. Fringe, Sliders, and Quantum Leap are both shows that used the changing of history to drive the premise of the show. Dallas famously revealed a whole season to 'be a dream'.

While I find this sort of thing can be very annoying on TV shows. A book can make this trope interesting, fun. In the best examples they allow you to appreciate historical events and the impacts they have in a new light. At worst, you enjoy the ride. It certainly can be a cop out. As a writer, how can I get to play with ready-made characters and situations but divorce them from reality and my need to research? Alternate history!

That isn't to say that people like Philip Roth don't have things to say when they write The Plot Against America. I think they do. And important things can be said with TV as well. Despite Harold Bloom's naysaying I think King has a point with this book.

Sellers is my attempt to examine what books are topping the best-seller list and why. To talk about and understand the trends in popular writing.

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