Anyone who knows me for a while discovers that I’m a big Stephen King fan. There are large bookcases in my home and there are two full shelves devoted entirely to Stephen King books in hardcover, trade paperback and mass market versions. It’s not a complete collection by any stretch of the imagination, but I probably own something in the neighborhood of 20-30 King novels and I’ve read more.
In my opinion, King is one of those authors who get consistently underrated. Not in terms of sales, obviously, since readers clearly love the guy. I mean in terms of acknowledgement of his actual talent. The Dark Tower series, for example, is a huge, sprawling epic that, if it got its due, would be classified in the same category as the Lord of the Rings. This is not me being hyperbolic, I believe that whole heartedly.
So, it was only natural for me to pick up a copy of 11/22/63 from the library. Then, an odd thing happened. I read, perhaps, the first 100 pages and discovered that I was not invested in the story. It wasn’t that the novel lacked the usual Stephen King magic. If anything, the power of King’s prose on a line by line basis has never been stronger. He is an absolute genius at giving us convincing everyman or everywoman characters that feel alive.
No, the magic was there. It was the story that didn’t resonate with me. What I couldn’t figure out was why the story didn’t resonate with me. It was only after my mother, who had read the book to completion, made an observation about her relationship with the time period that the truth became apparent. I just don’t care that much about John F. Kennedy.
I recognize that he is a historically important figure, but I was never invested in the “Camelot” myth the way prior generations were. I know Kennedy not as some kind of crown prince, but as the deeply flawed person that history has subsequently revealed. He was, in the end, just a man, almost certainly a lousy husband, and a questionably effective politician.
The basic conceit of the novel, at least up to the point that I read, is that saving Kennedy from assassination would make the world a better place. This critical point is where the novel loses me. I don’t find that claim credible. Would it have made the world a better place for his family? I expect it would have, at least in some respects. Would it have made the entire world a better place? I have my doubts.
What we bump up against here is the basic problem all writers face when developing a narrative. Can we craft it well enough to generate suspension of disbelief? Sometimes the problem is massive, as is the case with most fantasy novels set somewhere other than contemporary Earth. You must build a world that is convincing on its own, rather than one that borrows on the reality around you.
In other cases, the suspension of disbelief is smaller. It’s about building a premise that readers can buy into. In this instance, King failed to do that for me. I suspect that for me and most people in my generation, the assassination of JFK is an abstract. Whatever influence it has had on our lives is implicit and, as such, has no emotional resonance. We never believed in JFK and, because we never believed in him, we don’t believe in the efficacy of changing the outcome of his assassination.
The interesting question, at this point, is whether the novel isn’t a good novel or if it just isn’t a good novel for me/people like me. I don’t believe that 11/22/63 is a bad novel. I think it’s a bad novel for people like me. The lack of the appropriate social-emotional context makes it inaccessible and, as such, not compelling. Will this stop me from picking up King’s other books? Not a chance.
I’ve written this without finishing 11/22/63 and, because I have read so much King, I suspect that the basic conceit doesn’t play out. However, my inability to suspend disbelief means that I will probably never know for sure. Or I’ll read a summary of the book to find out. There are a couple of object lessons for me, and other authors, to take away from this.
The first object lesson: Craft your premise with care.
Stephen King is very good at this and he lost me with a premise that I didn’t find credible.
The second object lesson: No matter how carefully you craft your premise there will always be readers that won’t buy it.
It’s unavoidable. Not every story is going to speak to every reader. The people reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez are probably not, on the whole, reading Jim Butcher and very likely because they can’t buy the basic premise.
Suspension of disbelief, which is so critical to fiction of all kinds, is also very fragile. It doesn’t take much to dispel that dream fog in which suspension of disbelief lives. A bad special effect, poorly written dialogue, or a premise that doesn’t feel credible can all do it. So go forth, craft with care to give suspension of disbelief its best chance, and be okay with the fact that it won’t work for everyone