The Mediocrities

24 Sep

MehThe first Stephen King book I read was The Dead Zone. Immediately after that I read The Shining and scared the living shit out of myself. I was twelve. According to my people, I wasn’t even a man. Soon I began this ceaseless gluttony of Stephen King books. I recall freshman year in high school bringing in a hard copy of the uncut version of The Stand, a book that stacked higher than all my Talmuds combined.

Stephen King is not for everyone. When I tell people that I like him I tend to get odd looks, like somehow he is beneath me. Like I’m the prototypical literary snob because I like Murakami and Dos Passos. Harold Bloom, the eminent (read: douchey) literary critic said this of King:

I’ve described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind. He shares nothing with Edgar Allan Poe. What he is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis. 

Much of the criticism of King stems from his subject matter: horror. Some other understandable dismissals of King are related to his overlong novels, occasionally weak prose, and endings that just…

Why I like King is simple: he is highly inventive and writes with compassion for his characters. He is also my comfort food, reminding me of my childhood, curled up with a good book without a care in the world, before adulthood and responsibility claimed my soul. Of course King is not Hemingway or Steinbeck, Dickens or Melville. When I read his stuff now – with the added advantages of age and a better understanding of how words should be cobbled together – I find myself self-editing some of his stuff. But only some of it. Most of the time I turn a page and find myself eagerly anticipating the next page to be turned. I lose time reading King, which is one of the greatest compliments you can give a writer.

King wrote a novel a few years ago called Under the Dome. It was large and sprawling, and did what all of King’s best works do – place ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, then kill them in the most grizzly manner possible. While technically science fiction, Under the Dome is a novel about social psychology that owes much to one of King’s favorite books, Lord of the Flies. A couple of years ago they did Under the Dome as a television show. I don’t know a single person who actually watches the show. Except for me. But I don’t watch it because it’s any good. It’s not. I watch it for the very specific reason of its not goodness. For its profound, inane, jawdropping mediocrity.

Under the Dome (TV) (which I promise I won’t discuss that much as no one has ever seen it) is not only a bad show; it is a remarkably stupid one. It is a true “in the spirit of Lost” type of show: ensemble cast, serialized storytelling, science fiction-y, with the added bonus of everyone being stuck on a metaphorical island. (Plot Nutshell: A giant dome comes down over a town, think The Simpsons Movie.) What’s shocking about Under the Dome, however, is how nothing ever makes any sense. As if the writers were making it all up episode to episode, sometimes even scene to scene. Characters act a certain way, then they change out of the blue. Then they change back. The mythology of the show is bullshit, something about a magic glowing egg. Dialogue is laughable. And right when it seems like they’ve figured out how to be a decent show, it reverts and becomes an even worse one.

And for some reason I enjoy watching it, even though it’s awful. I stopped watching The Bridge this year, and that’s a good show, but I never had any real interest in watching it. It just clogged up my DVR. Under the Dome is fascinating in its stupidity. It’s the train wreck I can’t stop staring at. It’s the third season of Heroes (actually, it’s better than that, as nothing could ever be as bad as that garbage), a show without any internal consistency or logic of character.

So why do I watch this show? How did I get past three episodes? Why would anyone subject themselves to something they know to be awful?


My very first class in film school was called “Language of Film.” It was a critical class, not a hands-on production one. We watched Citizen Kane, Stagecoach, Ashes and Diamonds, Blade Runner, Vertigo, 2001, The Piano, Taxi Driver, Battleship Potemkin, Un Chien Andalou, and a bunch of other great films. No, not just great movies: Great Fucking Movies. In fact in my three and a half years at NYU we never watched a bad movie. (Okay, one of my TAs had a hard-on for Coppola’s Dracula, but that’s about it.) But if you’re learning an art, exposing yourself only to quality will not teach you that much. Yes, Citizen Kane can teach a lot about deep focus, Potemkin is a crash course on editing, and Taxi Driver shows that voiceover can work if done properly. But there is also much – maybe even more – to be learned from watching bad movies, or merely mediocre ones.

Why do I watch Under the Dome? Because it teaches me what not to do. Even more, it tests me. Every time I watch that damned stupid piece of shit show I think to myself, “No, that’s not how you do this. This is how you do it.” I’ve become a better writer by watching that show than by watching Breaking Bad or Mad Men. Great shows – just like great movies or books or songs – are entertaining. They make me feel good, feel alive. But I don’t deconstruct good stuff because with good stuff I just want to experience it. I want it to wash over me and for me not to think too much. (Yes, I know, I’ve written glowing reviews of films like Her and Boyhood and shows like Fargo and True Detective, so I’m a hypocrite, fine. I also still watch football, so I guess I’m a domestic violence enabler as well.)

I hope they show Michael Bay movies in film school now. Because there is so much wrong (and quite a bit right) with them. They could teach students far more than going all googly eyed over Hitchcock’s color schemes.

The best moments for me as a writer are not when I come up with a clever idea or craft a really well-worded sentence. It’s when I fix my mistakes, which are many. For those of you who have read my book, so much of it was revised over and over until it was right. Hemingway rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms something like thirty-six times. Every writer and artist makes mistakes, that’s just human nature. It’s how (or if) we fix those mistakes that makes the work any good. I watch bad television and bad movies (and occasionally read bad books) to learn from other’s mistakes.

It’s like all those people who complain about the government. The government is awful because it does this bad thing and does that bad thing. Most of the time, however, we don’t notice the government because it’s doing its job. We get our Social Security checks, our water is clean, our stroke drugs won’t give us a heart attack, our streets mostly paved, our cops generally not awful human beings. It’s only when things break down – when cops kill an unarmed black teen, when the VA is overrun with claims, when a pothole isn’t fixed quick enough – that we notice that the government is doing something.

We tend to only notice the government when it is doing something wrong. We only see how a show or movie is put together when it screws up and has characters act in a way they wouldn’t, or when a plot hole is not filled quick enough. We only want to fix (or dismantle) the government when it screws us over as citizens. We want to fix stories when they screw us over as an audience. 

Artists and writers should surround themselves with other forms of art. Painters should listen to great music and musicians should watch dance. As a writer, a Picasso painting will give me more inspiration than a short story in The New Yorker. Probably because I have no ambition to paint like Picasso, or at all. Simply inundating myself with classic books or movies will not make me a better writer, but may make me a copycat. (I still recall my early Stephen King-esque efforts.) But watching or reading other people’s crap will teach us the most important lesson: Don’t Do That.

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