Monday, January 20, 2014

Stephen King: Bag of Bones (1998)

Shortly after the sudden death of his wife, novelist Mike Noonan develops a severe case of writer's block. He also begins having recurring nightmares that eventually draw him back to the summer cottage he and his wife frequented on Dark Score Lake in western Maine. (Wikipedia's entry includes a detailed description of the supernatural plot.)

Early in Bag of Bones, Noonan offers his thoughts about writing and (especially) the publishing industry as his agent pushes him to sign a multi-book contract. It seems safe to assume that some (or many) of Noonan's opinions mirror those held by Stephen King, as Bag of Bones was his first book under a new three-year contract with Simon & Schuster. (King had been associated with Viking since 1979 and The Dead Zone.)

However, King left when Viking balked at his request for significantly higher advances. Also, King was said "to favor the idea of switching to a house with more literary cachet". Bag of Bones is leaner than the usual King novel. Although it is still a sizeable tome - at 529 pages - there is not a lot of extraneous material. Much of the fat that marred King's previous books (like Insomnia and Desperation) has been trimmed away.

After his wife's death of a brain aneurysm, Mike finishes his latest novel, but is unable to begin any new projects. Indeed, the prospect of sitting down at his computer at times makes him physical ill. Noonan says that what a publisher wants,
especially from an author who can be counted on to sell 500,000 or so copies of each novel in hardcover and a million more in paperback, is perfectly simple: a book a year. That, the wallahs in New York have determined, is the optimum. Three hundred and eighty pages bound by string or glue every twelve months ...

Less than a book a year and you're screwing up the publisher's investment in you, hampering your business manager's ability to continue floating all of your credit cards, and jeopardizing your agent's ability to pay his shrink on time."
This sounds a lot like what King wrote back in 1985, in "The Politics of Limited Editions":
If the idea of a writer having an economic responsibility to publish what he writes seems absurd to you, I can assure you it does not seem at all absurd to the booksellers of America, or to a writer himself after he has been told that his seemingly whimsical decision to publish a book in a small-distribution format had actually taken the bread out of children's mouths or might have been a contributing cause to the closure of an independent small-town bookstore that might otherwise have turned the corner ... or at least staggered on a while longer before collapsing.
Noonan is referred at one point as "V.C. Andrews with a prick".
You've seen my name on a lot of bestseller lists ... if, that is, your Sunday paper carries a list that goes up to fifteen instead of just listing the top ten. I was never a Clancy, Ludlum, or Grisham, but I moved a fair number of hardcovers ... I stood just outside the magic circle of the mega-bestsellers ...
A writer of Noonan's mid-list stature needed to publish every single year to maintain his visibility. According to Noonan's agent,
Grisham could afford to take a year off. Clancy could. Thomas Harris, those long silences are a part of his mystique. But where you are, life is even tougher than at the very top, Mike. There are five writers for every one of those spots down on the list ... If Tom Clancy were to go on hiatus for five years and then bring Jack Ryan back, he'd come back strong, no argument. If you go on hiatus for five years, maybe you don't come back at all.
Fortunately, Noonan is able to keep his publisher satisfied by sending in older manuscripts he had written years before and stored away. He mails off four novels this way and is thus able to have a new hardcover on store shelves every autumn "just like clockwork", all the while actually writing only "notes, grocery lists, and checks". Amusingly, these books - one of which was written nearly 12 years earlier - are very well-received, heralding what the critics say is a more mature phase of his writing.

King once described himself as "a girl of easy virtue" when it came to writing and Noonan likens his role as a professional author of mass-market fiction to working as a prostitute:
Critically ignored, genre oriented ... but well compensated and with the shabby acceptance accorded to state-sanctioned whorehouses in Nevada, the feeling seeming to be that some outlet for the baser instincts should be provided and someone had to do That Sort Of Thing.
"Perception is everything," Noonan says at one point. He understands very clearly that how he is marketed by his publisher is the way he will be perceived by the general public - and people will read or not read his books accordingly. This perception often has very little to do with the actual book(s) he has written; it all happens before any engagement with the text occurs.

King had claimed he doesn't care what critics say; he loves to write, and he is grateful that so many people want to read his books. But reading Noonan's comments - and scattered statements by King about being typecast as a genre author - it is clear that King cares quite a bit about his reputation, perhaps more than he wishes he did. All of this would reach a head (of sorts) in 2003, when the National Book Foundation presented King with its Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.


In BoB, the unincorporated township of TR-90 is another of King's small Maine towns with dark secrets. Roughly a century earlier, Sara Tidwell, the singer in a travelling blues band known as the Red Tops, was raped and murdered by a group of boys from the TR. Sara's eight-year-old son witnessed the attack and was drowned in the lake by the gang. Sara's spirit has haunted the TR ever since, and has exacted some measure of revenge by orchestrating the deaths of several children (and grandchildren) of the young men involved in the crime. It falls to Noonan to break Sara's hold over the town.

Amy Joyce Palko, Charting Habitus: Stephen King, the Author-protagonist and the Field of Literary Production (2009 thesis):
King has often expressed an unease over the division between folk and mass culture, and has found himself in need of defending his choices to produce work that contributes to this ideal of folk culture rather than being aimed at the mass market. ...

King is keen to assert his folk culture credentials; he wants to highlight the affinity between his work and an idealised, nostalgic, even at times pre-technological fantasy of folk cultural production. In this way, he attempts to distance himself from the detrimental aspects experienced by one typed as a commercial best-selling writer. ...

Through the figure of author-protagonist Mike Noonan in Bag of Bones, King investigates the dialectic between popular and folk cultural production by comparing Noonan's participation in the field with that of his wife, Johanna, and the long deceased blues singer, Sara [Tidwell]. Noonan's positioning within the field and his methods of production reveal that he is a popular, best-selling author who, unlike his wife and Sara, competes for economic capital.
King contrasts Noonan's writing career and the publishing industry with Tidwell and the Red Tops' raucous blues, and examines the differences between mass and folk culture, the high and low. Tidwell's past and musical style/presentation may be idealised, but it still acts as a foil for a contemporary mass culture driven by powerful economic forces.

Sara and her band never recorded, and thus never became part of the music industry. Tidwell is described as "frank and free", unencumbered by commercial concerns, unlike Noonan, who has become a slave to the "hierarchical realm of book lists, market shares and target audiences".

Next: The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.


M@ said...

This sounds like a very different (and interesting) book for King. What were your overall thoughts? Worth reading?

allan said...

The writing aspect of it is really just at the beginning, before Noonan heads off to the cottage - but I found it interesting. The uncovering of the haunting aspect, whether it is his wife or something else, was all right. And Noonan's interaction with the town, including his budding relationship with a young woman and her daughter, is done quite well. King often excels at that.

The supernatural stuff is (again, for me) a little bit in the way. I wonder sometimes (like with Rose Madder) if King feels like he has to include stuff like that because people expect it from him. Or maybe he just likes it. I was hoping RM would remain a straight thriller (kind of like Cujo was, if I recall), but it veered off.

Bag of Bones is not nearly as bad. I enjoyed most of it. It supposedly was part of an effort by King to be more literary. Hearts in Atlantis, which I just started, seems to be part of that. And down the road, Lisey's Story and Duma Key apparently were like that, too.

M@ said...

Good to know. This sounds like one I'd be really interested in reading -- I'll try to find a copy.

I think you're probably right about King tacking on the supernatural stuff because it's expected. It might not even be conscious -- maybe he expects it of himself and looks for a way to work it in. But I still think this would be up my alley. Thanks.

laura k said...

I read an article a while back about the ever-increasing pressure on best-selling authors to publish frequently - more and more frequently. All the authors interviewed said they were expected to produce a book every year... except for James Patterson who said his target is now two books per year.

It may seem funny for a writer like me to say this, but I actually felt sad for them. It was so clear that the popularity of their books had destroyed their joy of writing! What a cruel trick.

M@ said...

One of the advantages for writers now, though, is that if they refuse to sign a contract like that, they can still publish.

Once you achieve literary super-stardom, you could e-publish and get almost equal sales, based only on name recognition and Amazon/B&N/whoever's "stuff like what you just bought" algorithms. Hire a PR firm, and you're probably doing equally well as a bookseller -- and the royalties could be 6-7 times greater on each sale, too.

My prediction is that we're going to see either a lot more authors who are already successful moving to this model, or a lot fewer stranglehold contracts.

laura k said...

Once you achieve literary super-stardom,

That's what's so very vexing.

Seinfeld aside, I'm pretty cynical about self-publishing fiction for all but the superstars.

M@ said...

I don't know that it's only for superstars -- I think the problem is that it's now seen as a magic bullet (can't get my book published -- okay, I'll self-publish), which doesn't address the real problem (the book isn't what publishers want, for whatever reason).

And of course, the vultures all swoop in immediately, finding ways to make money off people who want to self-publish.

All that said, the possibilities for mid-list authors are huge, as are the possibilities for authors whose books are legitimate contenders for traditional publishing but who choose this other route. (The trouble is that it's only possible to identify those authors post hoc.)

I'm also a fan of e-publishing and even POD (somewhat vanity) publishing for books whose audience is definite and well-defined, but too small for publishers to identify and reach. I remember there was a very successful book a few years ago about making a backyard hockey rink. The author sold plenty of copies because it's a subject that is very interesting to a very easily identified group of buyers (parents of children who like hockey, where they live in sufficient space to build a rink). The author wasn't out to make a million bucks, and didn't, but it was ideal for the small-scale publishing that is now possible.

The trouble is that expectations are unrealistic (which is fuelled by the vultures as well), and people start paying serious money to self-publish. That's why I'm working to inform authors. Cheating them would be more profitable, unfortunately, but oh well.