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Is Stephen King Getting Worse or Better?

Stephen King’s going to go down in history as THE novelist of the late twentieth century. More than Dean Koontz or John Green or Danielle Steele. They even made a horror movie about him. I’m not talking about a documentary or his directorial debut (and finale) Maximum Overdrive or a thinly veiled pastiche like in “In the Mouth of Madness“. I mean he was the subject matter. He’s ceased to be a person, but a brand. That’s what I call being part of the public consciousness. Not even J.K. Rowling has that (yet).

But art changes over time. Simply because people change over time. Steven Spielberg doesn’t make the same kinds of movies he used to. Metallica’s first album Kill ‘Em All has a different style than Load, which has a different style from Death Magnetic. And don’t get me started about The Muppets.

It’s not all internal (meaning experience and skill). It’s mood, tone, technology, and situation. It’s the outside world and the inside world. It’s your mother dying or a civil war or a drug problem. Long story short, people change, so their art changes.

Stephen King’s been a non-stop train, publishing 1-2 books a year and countless short stories. But he’s not as “big” as he was in the eighties. Neither was he ever known for quality. He had a “People’s Choice” sentiment going on. Most of that is due to the nature of the genre (as in, if you write in a genre, critics ignore you). People still talk about It and Cujo and The Shining. Nobody talks about Joyland or Cell. Even Under the Dome became a TV series, but you wouldn’t know it unless you were paying attention.

While thinking about “On Writing,” my foundation for “how to write”, his advice seems to contradict his actions. And not just in his old books, which might contain rookie mistakes. I’m talking about now. There are so many of the same tropes and clichés in every book you can make a drinking game out of them. Harold Bloom accused him of “dumbing down America” when King won the 2003 National Book Foundation award. He’s been accused of overwriting, inflating the word count to make his books into doorstops, and making the customer feel like he or she got more for their money. This article, taking a snippet of a 2014 book, does better justice to my thesis.

So here’s my question: Is Stephen King getting worse?

You would think that the more experience you have, the better at something you get. However, the bigger you get, the more “yes-men” around you. They think your shit doesn’t stink, so they pass everything along because A) they know it’ll make a buck or B) if they say no, they’ll get fired. There’re fewer gatekeepers, fewer filters. If I was given the task of editing Stephen King, I would be very hesitant on suggesting any corrections. The man must know what he’s doing, he’s published so many books.

So let’s go to the data. Data never lies, right? I want to know if Stephen King’s trending up or down. Does he have a place in the world of stories today, or is it simply that we remember his name?

YEARTITLEGENREGOODREADS RATINGGOODREADS REVIEWSLIBRARYTHING RATINGLIBRARYTHING MEMBERSNOTES
1974CarrieHorror3.93382,0003.729,500 
1975‘Salem’s LotHorror3.99248,0003.9410,000 
1977The ShiningHorror / Psych Horror4.18836,0004.1115,000King moves from ME to CO
1977Rage*Psych Thriller3.823,0003.38747King moves back to ME
1978The StandPost-Apocalyptic4.34474,0004.3314,000 
1978Night Shift†Short story collection3.96113,0003.86,300 
1979The Long Walk*Psych Horror4.1180,0003.843,400 
1979The Dead ZoneSupernatural Thriller3.9140,0003.777,000 
1980FirestarterScience fiction3.85149,0003.646,600 
1981Roadwork*Psych Thriller3.5920,0003.841,200 
1981CujoHorror3.65168,0003.436,700King’s addiction intervention
1982The Running Man*Science fiction3.8168,0003.632,400 
1982The Dark Tower: The GunslingerFantasy / Western3.98374,0003.8615,000Originally written from 1977-1981
1982Different Seasons†Short story collection4.34139,0003.986,500 
1983ChristineHorror3.73158,0003.536,100 
1983Pet SemataryHorror3.91296,0003.729,100 
1983Cycle of the WerewolfHorror3.6236,0003.392,000 
1984The TalismanFantasy4.1287,0004.047,200 
1984Thinner*Horror3.67137,0003.415,300“Richard Bachman” is unveiled
1985Skeleton Crew†Short story collection3.9388,0003.775,900 
1986ItHorror4.19492,0004.0813,000 
1987The Eyes of the DragonFantasy3.9282,0003.827,500 
1987The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the ThreeFantasy / Western4.23160,0004.11,1000 
1987MiseryPsych Horror4.11356,0003.949,900 
1987The TommyknockersScience fiction3.4896,0003.336,500First book written after sobriety?
1989The Dark HalfPsych Horror3.74100,0003.566,000 
1990Four Past Midnight†Short story collection3.982,0003.715,700 
1991The Dark Tower III: The Waste LandsFantasy / Western4.24137,0004.0810,000 
1991Needful ThingsHorror3.87162,0003.697,500First book written after sobriety?
1992Gerald’s GameSuspense3.47106,0003.295,700 
1992Dolores ClaibornePsych Thriller3.8199,0003.645,700 
1993Nightmares & Dreamscapes†Short story collection3.959,0003.694,300 
1994InsomniaHorror / fantasy3.79110,0003.677,500 
1995Rose MadderFantasy3.6676,0003.485,400 
1996The Green MileFantasy4.42192,0004.238,400 
1996DesperationHorror3.8100,0003.596,800 
1996The Regulators*Science fiction / horror3.6454,0003.374,600 
1997The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and GlassFantasy / Western4.24122,0004.079,400 
1998Bag of BonesGothic fiction3.87138,0003.717,900 
1999The Girl Who Loved Tom GordonHorror3.56103,0003.446,500King’s car accident
1999Hearts in Atlantis†Short story collection3.871,0003.666,000 
2001DreamcatcherScience fiction3.59123,0003.326,600 
2001Black HouseHorror3.9945,0003.785,400 
2002From a Buick 8Horror3.4250,0003.294,800 
2002Everything’s Eventual†Short story collection3.9468,0003.756,900 
2003The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the CallaFantasy / Western4.17110,0004.038,300 
2004The Dark Tower VI: Song of SusannahFantasy / Western3.9897,0003.877,800 
2004The Dark Tower VII: The Dark TowerFantasy / Western4.27105,0004.147,800 
2005The Colorado KidCrime fiction3.2822,0003.22,400 
2006CellHorror3.64154,0003.458,600 
2006Lisey’s StoryHorror3.6555,0003.65,900 
2007Blaze*Crime fiction3.6630,0003.462,800 
2008Duma KeyPsych Horror3.9380,0003.895,800 
2008Just After Sunset†Short story collection3.8538,0003.713,600 
2009Under the DomeScience fiction3.89203,0003.847,800 
2010Full Dark, No Stars†Short story collection4.0370,0003.963,400 
201111/22/63Science fiction / alternate history4.29306,0004.27,400 
2012The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the KeyholeFantasy / Western4.1547,0004.072,000 
2013JoylandCrime fiction / mystery3.983,0003.92,400 
2013Doctor SleepHorror4.1117,0004.063,300 
2014Mr. MercedesCrime fiction3.92151,0003.852,700 
2014RevivalCrime fiction3.7569,0003.691,700 
2015Finders KeepersCrime fiction4.0366,0003.971,600 
2015The Bazaar of Bad Dreams†Short story collection3.9229,0003.911,000 
2016End of WatchCrime fiction4.0947,0003.911,000 

* Published under the pseudonym “Richard Bachman”
† Short story collection

Here’s our base data. Genres were taken from Wikipedia, which is authoritative as anything else with regard to the categorization of art. Now let’s plot these data points.

Well, this certainly… doesn’t answer any questions. The GoodReads ratings trend slightly down but the LibraryThing ratings trend slightly up. And neither in any significant slope. I’m comfortable saying the quality of his work (as rated by the people) has remained consistent through his career.

Again, this is not scientific. Some of these people voted for Trump. And, from this view, the spikes vary wildly. Note that not one goes higher than 4.4 and not one goes lower than 3.2. But as a writer, that’s a comfortable wheelhouse to be in.

So we’ve determined no change in how his books are rated. Mr. Mercedes is about as good as Pet Sematary. But how about the number of people picking up his books?

Ah, we see some trends here. But the data skews downward for a reason. Forty years have passed since Carrie. That gives people more time for people to pick it up than Duma Key (2008). So the downward line doesn’t necessarily mean people are dropping King from their reading lists.

Or does it? When was the last time you heard someone talk about him? Not in the “fine legacy of a horror writer” sense, but “what have you done for me lately?”

Here’s a thing I want to point out. Somewhere between 1987 and 1991, King got sober. I’m not sure which was his first sober book (one source said The Tommyknockers, another said Needful Things) but note that point in time on the graph. No book except for The Dark Tower 7 (the final book in the series) and Under the Dome (which had a big marketing campaign behind it) reaches above 200,000 readers. So the quality didn’t change, but the number of people who cared did. Did his content change with his sobriety? Was the bloom off the rose? I feel like something happened, but I don’t know what.

Here’s another interesting thing to note — Stephen King’s not really writing horror anymore. In the last ten years, only three books (that weren’t short story collections) were horror. More were categorized as crime fiction. Does that mean King’s sick of horror? Or he’s experimenting? I dunno. But I don’t think we’ll ever see another Misery or The Stand again.

Does King care? Probably not. I wouldn’t care. I would consider it a blessing. He’s made it. He still makes bestseller lists, for both old and new books (It is up there right now, thanks to the movie). And now he can write whatever he wants to. No deadlines, no pressure. Not even George R. R. Martin can say that.

Does any of this data mining prove anything? I guess it proves that, contrary to what I said before, maybe a person’s art doesn’t change as much as we think.

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at http://www.ericjuneaubooks.com where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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