Stephen King. Bestseller. Potty Mouth.

How come Stephen King gets away with so many "bad" words?

Posted Nov 22, 2009

I've read three of Stephen King's novels, and the most positive comment I can make is that his book of advice to writers, On Writing, is enjoyable and contains some very good ideas. Which he doesn't follow.

Case in point: When King was in the eighth grade, he reported, he read a book by a science fiction pulp writer and thought it was terrible. King's words:

Worst of all (or so it seemed to me at the time [wrote King]), Leinster had fallen in love with the word zestful. Characters watched the approach of ore-bearing asteroids with zestful smiles. Characters sat down to supper aboard their mining ship with zestful anticipation. Near the end of the book, the hero swept the large-breasted, blonde heroine into a zestful embrace. For me, it was the equivalent of a literary smallpox vaccination: I have never, so far as I know, used the word zestful in a novel or story. God willing, I never will.

Fair enough.  And yet, some years ago, I could barely get through Stephen King's The Green Mile because he apparently resisted that inoculation. The novel was urged on me by a very good friend with a penchant for fast-moving plots. So I read it. Remember the major role of the gifted prison mouse, Mr. Jingles? (You may have seen the movie, if not read the book.) The problem, for me, is that King used the phrase "oil-spot eyes" over and over again, in one very slightly different form or another, to describe the mouse.

It got to the point where I wondered if he'd revised at all. Much later, reading On Writing, I had the answer. King says his method of revision has always been "two drafts and a polish." My friend, by the way, never noticed the repetition, so caught up was he in the plot. Which is exactly what King counts on. Fine.

But what bothers me is that King (and other pop writers) forget to care about the language. Amy Krouse Rosenthal, author of a memoir (Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life) and many children's books described her creative process this way in an interview with Amy Yelin in The Writer's Chronicle (9/09):

I sometimes struggle with pieces that are just two or three sentences long, trying to find the words to express what I really mean. Because you can put it down on paper, and you know it's sort of accurate but it's not exactly resonating right. It's like a knob that just needs to be turned a little bit and then you're like, "That's great, that's exactly it."

Which brings me back to why I chose to write this particular post now. I just finished reading (and, I have to admit, skimming the final several hundred pages) of Stephen King's Under the Dome. If it weren't for fear of causing my tendonitis to flare up, I'd have tossed the 1074-page book across the room. Why? Among other reasons, because he uses the word "shit" on hundreds of those pages. Almost every page. (Feel free to count them.) Not only do the dim-witted, sadistic, necrophiliac, cartoonishly Fundamentalist characters use the word. So does the narrator. Not as an expletive, but as a descriptor, as in "He looked like shit." Again and again.

Does that kind of thing matter to you?  Just curious.

Copyright (c) by Susan K. Perry

Follow me on twitter @bunnyape

More Posts