IT by Stephen King: (how to write social commentary and still be entertaining)

“The task of a writer is not to solve a problem but to state the problem correctly.” — Anton Chekhov


It is a novel about an evil phantom clown who haunts a small Maine town called Derry. This evil clown, who calls himself Pennywise, is an entity that shows up every twenty-seven years or so to terrorize Derry’s inhabitants by murdering its children and causing the inhabitants to go violently mad. Pennywise is able to shape-shift into whatever people fear most. If you want to get metaphorical, Pennywise represents a distillation of evil; it is the dark face of small-town America.

The book takes place across two timelines where a group of friends get together to defeat Pennywise during the summer of 1958—when they are all a group of outcast kids in their tweens—and then again, twenty-seven years later, when they are all successful adults. Derry is a town where the worst of humanity reigns.

The book discusses all sorts of hard issues: homophobia, antisemitism, domestic violence, child abuse, racism, bullies, fat kids, and outcasts of all sorts.

How does a genre book dig into such heavy issues? That’s the topic of today’s blog.

I’d like to bring your attention to a meta-discussion that one of the main characters, Bill Denborough, has with his teacher in his college-level creative writing course. At the heart of this particular scene is the question, Is a writer’s primary role to tell a story or to make a political statement? Or, put another way, is it art or is it entertainment (or are those things even mutually exclusive)?

Finally [Bill] stands up in class one day, after the discussion of a sallow young woman’s vignette about a cow’s examination of a discarded engine block in a deserted field (this may or may not be after a nuclear war) has gone on for seventy minutes or so. The sallow girl, who smokes one Winston after another and picks occasionally at the pimples which nestle in the hollows of her temples, insists that the vignette is a socio-political statement in the manner of the early Orwell. Most of the class—and the instructor—agree, but still the discussion drones on.

When Bill stands up, the class looks at him. He is tall, and has a certain presence.

Speaking carefully, not stuttering (he has not stuttered in better than five years), he says: “I don’t understand this at all. I don’t understand any of this. Why does a story have to be socio-anything? Politics…culture…history…aren’t those natural ingredients in any story, if it’s told well? I mean…” He looks around, sees hostile eyes, and realizes dimly that they see this as some sort of attack. Maybe it even is. They are thinking, he realizes, that maybe there is a sexist death merchant in their midst. “I mean…can’t you guys just let a story be a story?”

No one replies. Silence spins out. He stands there looking from one cool set of eyes to the next. The sallow girl chuffs out smoke and snubs her cigarette in an ashtray she has brought along in her backpack.

Finally the instructor says softly, as if to a child having an inexplicable tantrum, “Do you believe William Faulkner was just telling stories? Do you believe Shakespeare was just interested in making a buck? Come now, Bill. Tell us what you think.”

“I think that’s pretty close to the truth,” Bill says after a long moment in which he honestly considers the question, and in their eyes he reads a kind of damnation.

“I suggest,” the instructor says, toying with his pen and smiling at Bill with half-lidded eyes, “that you have a great deal to learn.”

After this, Bill writes a short story titled, “The Dark,” which is based in some measure off of his childhood experiences in Derry. The professor—a literary snob and failed poet—scrawls “F” and “PULP CRAP” across the front page of Bill’s story.

Bill takes the fifteen-page sheaf of manuscript over to the woodstove and opens the door. He is within a bare inch of tossing it in when the absurdity of what he is doing strikes him. He sits down in his rocking chair, looks at a Grateful Dead poster, and starts to laugh. Pulp? Fine! Let it be pulp! The woods were full of it!

“Let them fucking trees fall!” Bill exclaims, and laughs until tears spurt from his eyes and roll down his face.

He retypes the title page, the one with the instructor’s judgment on it, and sends it off to a men’s magazine named White Tie […]

To Bill’s surprise, the magazine buys his story—for “Two-hundred dollars!”—and the editor sends him a heart-felt acceptance letter praising the story.

He goes to his advisor with a drop card for Eh-141 [the creative writing course]. His advisor initials it. Bill Denbrough staples the drop card to the assistant fiction editor’s congratulatory note and tacks both to the bulletin board on the creative-writing instructor’s door. In the corner of the bulletin board he sees an anti-war cartoon. And suddenly, as if moving of his own accord, his fingers pluck his pen from his breast pocket and across the cartoon he writes this: If fiction and politics ever really do become interchangeable, I’m going to kill myself, because I won’t know what else to do. You see, politics always change. Stories never do. He pauses, and then, feeling a bit small (but unable to help himself), he adds: I suggest you have a lot to learn.

His drop card comes back to him in the campus mail three days later. The instructor has initialed it. On the space marked GRADE AT TIME OF DROP, the instructor does not give him an incomplete or the low C to which his run of grades at that time would have entitled him; instead, another F is slashed angrily across the grade line. Below it the instructor has written: Do you think money proves anything about anything, Denbrough?

“Well, actually, yes,” Bill Denbrough says to his empty apartment, and once more begins to laugh crazily.

And it is after that that Bill’s writing career begins to take off.

Thankfully, I never had such a professor like this in any of my MFA program. As an MFA student at SF State, I took classes in Post-Apocolyptic Sci-Fi, Serial Fiction, and Nineteenth Century Mystery. I’m not sure if my experience at SF State holds true for the rest of the literary world, but from where I’m standing, the creative writing world has passed a tipping point where no one believes entertainment and enlightenment are mutually exclusive anymore.

Attitudes, such as those of Bill Denbrogh’s professor, are generally considered elitist, classist, absurdly uninformed, and in poor taste. One has only to look at the current darlings of the literary world—Junot Diaz (magical realism), Michael Chabon (science-fiction, mystery), Kazuo Ishiguro (science fiction), Alice Sebold (fantasy), Aimee Bender (fantasy), George Saunders (science fiction), Robert Olen Butler (fantasy), and many others—to see a fusion of high-minded art and entertainment.

As an old professor of mine once said, “A writer’s job is to delight and illuminate; but remember that nobody is going to stick around for the latter if you don’t do a good job with the former.” That’s right, folks, no one is going to care about what you have to say until you learn to say it well. This is the art of persuasion. This is entertainment.

So how does a writer mix politics into a story without instantly becoming dated and irrelevant? As a novel, It is a good example of how to do this well.

If you’re looking for an exhaustive exercise, I suggest reading the 1,000-page novel and marking all the places Stephen King makes political commentary or discusses American life. If you’re looking for three quick ways to integrate entertainment and meaning in your fiction, read on.

First, politics and history and all that jazz are a natural part of the story’s milieu. Stephen King places his stories in the real(ish) world: the presidents are the same, the bands are the same, the historical events are the same, the geography is the same, and the settings are all familiar and plausible…until things get weird in the typical Stephen King fashion. What is going on in the real world of your story, at the time you’re writing it? What’s in the news? What’s on the radio? How is the economy? Is there a war going on? These things are part of your characters’ world, even if they are only peripherally aware of what’s going on outside their own personal drama. Adding these little clues and detailing your character’s reactions to them can deepen a story to make it about more than just one thing.

Second, theme and political commentary and finding meaning is a natural part of character development. Do your know your characters’ positions on [fill-in-the-blank: the war on terror / drugs / poverty / homosexuality / immigration / the environment / the economy, etc…all those talking points politicians usually cover]. If you don’t know what your character would say about these issues, than you have more research to do.

Third, you, as the writer, must remain neutral as a scientist running an experiment. Remember Chekhov’s words that it isn’t the writer’s job to solve the world’s problems, but to state the problem correctly. Treat your characters with equanimity. Don’t create straw-men out of the characters you don’t like and don’t stack the deck in favor of the characters you do like. It’s a journalism trick of impartiality: fairly present the evidence of both sides and allow your readers to decide.

Which is not to say you should withhold meaning (a common pitfall for journalists). Not at all, you are allowing your characters the chance to explain their own sense of meaning.

For example, in the novel I’m currently working on I have characters on both the far-left and the far-right of the political spectrum; I have characters who are New Agers and also fundamental christians; I have gay characters and also some homophobes. Do I have characters I don’t like? Do I have characters with whom I disagree? Certainly! However, regardless of my personal feelings towards my characters, I am trying to do each character justice by capturing their voices and by presenting reality as they see it. You see, my book isn’t about how left-wing politics is any better than right-wing politics, or visa versa; I am not taking a position because my novel is actually about confirmation bias—which is the process by which people select information in order to reinforce their version of reality. This is my version of “stating the problem correctly”—as Chekhov would say it. I’m trying to present each side fairly and with equanimity, and allow the reader to decide.

About E.S.O. Martin

E.S.O. Martin is a writer, a California native, and a graduate of SF State's Creative Writing MFA program.
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