Monday, May 20, 2019
What do Creators and Fans Owe Each Other? - Misery by Stephen King
I've been reading a lot of Stephen King lately, but somehow I had never read one of his most famous books. I'm glad I finally did. Misery is definitely one of King's tightest novels (being relatively short and only having two major characters probably helps there). It also brings up a lot of interesting issues with regard to addiction, mental illness, and biggest of all: the ethics of what creators owe to their audience and vice versa.
This is one of those novels that's so famous I don't need to summarize the plot (thanks also to the 1990 movie starring Kathy Bates). This one doesn't contain any supernatural or science fictional elements, but this is less uncommon for King than many people think (remember that Stand By Me and Shawshank Redemption are based on King's works). A lot of King's novels, especially the longer ones, have a lot of long digressions and backstories. Misery, however, really only has two characters and their backstories aren't immediately obvious. There's a bit of an all-too-convenient info dump of Annie's backstory, but I can forgive that because it is explained later. King's genius, however, is that he makes what could be a boring character-study novel into something riveting. Every time Paul left his room, anytime Annie wasn't around, anytime Annie was around,... well, pretty much the whole time, I kept reading in search of what Paul called "the gotta" (as in, "gotta see what happens").
As for the characters, Paul is flawed and honestly not that likable, which makes King's skill in getting readers to care about him all the more amazing. Annie is even creepier than you think she's going to be as a nurse who harms her patients and a frumpy middle-aged woman more sadistic than any movie gangster. That she never swears but says things like "cockadoodle" instead is just the icing on the creepy cake.
I read this novel in the same week when more than one million "fans" of HBO's Game of Thrones signed a petition to have the last season entirely redone, which somehow feels appropriate. But what do creators owe their audiences? What do audiences owe their creators? Misery gives a lot to think about there. (I also think about this issues with regard to the Star Wars prequels or musicians like Metallica that have changed a lot over the years).
The internet has caused a lot of people to falsely believe they are experts, which I think is somewhat the case with Game of Thrones: people sometimes seem to believe they know how to write the story better than the show creators. I'm not saying one way or another whether the season is actually good or not (I'll save that for a review of the show), but in Misery Annie sometimes seems to think she knows better than Paul what to do with his novel. She makes him destroy a manuscript and forces him to write a new novel ret-conning the death of her favorite character, Misery.
But even Annie for all her many failings seems to recognize Paul's expertise as a writer, at least some of the time. But do we as an audience really want creators to create just for us? Do we consume books or TV shows just to get what we think we want - "fan service" in the dismissive sense? Or do we gain something valuable from engaging with works of art that might surprise, challenge, and yes, even disappoint us from time to time? Does there come a time when fans and creators simply part ways? Can such "divorces" be amicable or are they always acrimonious?
Case in point: I have made my peace with Metallica's change in direction, but I don't listen to their new stuff; I'm even coming to see that the Star Wars prequels or The Matrix sequels weren't as bad as everyone seems to think. I haven't rewatched the Star Wars prequels in a long time, but see here for my recent experiment of re-watching The Matrix sequels.
Back to Misery: Paul is our POV character so we get a lot of his inner monologue about the creative process (a lot of which reminds me of what King says in On Writing). He ranges from hating his fans (with Annie as his proxy) and feeling like he got stuck in a rut giving fans what they want to genuinely enjoying creating something people (i.e., Annie) will love. At at least one point he says that when he creates he doesn't think of the audience, but can you forget about your audience when you're creating? Should you? Or does the audience enter into it in the editing stage? What do creators owe their fans? Can the creator-fan relationship be reduced to a capitalist supplier and consumer model? Or is it more complicated than that, perhaps more like a personal relationship? Does the capitalist system make us think about the creator-fan relationship differently? Or has art remained a part of human life that can't be totally reduced to economic relations? Does that make it a point of resistance or exploitation?
I'm not saying Misery explicitly asks all of these questions, but it entices me to ask them and genuinely surprised me with how good it is. I think the novel may be making a point about these questions whether King intended it or not. Another thing Misery makes me wonder: whether there will ever be another author both as economically and artistically successful as Stephen King.
See also my Goodreads review.