Three Writers Go to Radio City:
An Evening With Harry, Carrie, and Garp
There’s this theory – I think it’s called reaction theory, but don’t quote me on that – that states that an audience’s reaction to an artist is as important and as relevant as the artist’s work itself. This has always been a peculiarly alarming phenomenon; it’s why the general consensus still holds that if something is very popular then it can’t be of any real worth. If mass popularity equals lowest common denominator, then the artist cannot be saying anything all that important.
Which leads me to my seat at Radio City Music Hall, sitting in bewildered silence, starting to understand why Stephen King has gotten such a critical drubbing for most of his career. Maybe it’s not the books at all. Maybe it’s the darkest form of reaction theory at work. And maybe I was seeing it all play out in front of me right now.
But let’s backtrack.
I’d tucked myself into my seat, sweating buckets with my Veronica Mars bag between my sneakers. The bag contains my first edition of Christine and my paperback copy of The World According to Garp. I decided that carrying around The Order of the Phoenix just made everything too heavy, and meeting the writers afterward for a signing was a really off-chance wish anyway. It didn’t matter. In moments, I was going to see my two favorite writers and another that places in my top ten on the same stage, and I was basting in fanboy glory. Well, mostly New York grime-sweat, but also the glory thing.
I glanced around before the houselights went down. It was no exaggeration to see that most of the audience – I’m going to say roughly 60% - were there exclusively for Rowling. 38%, give or take, were there for King. And, um, that remaining two percent for Irving, well, they were cool, too. I wondered how many people were like me, and were fans of all three writers. I hoped by the end of the night, there’d be more.
The lights dimmed, and the first big surprise of the night took the stage: emcee and voracious reader Whoopi Goldberg! At this point, my brain did that little switch-off it does whenever OMG THAT’S A FAMOUS PERSON traipses across my cerebrum. Whoopi did such a great job, waxing rhapsodic about all three authors and actually meaning it. (At one point, she imagines what a collaboration between the three might be like: “So there’s this young wizard who’s coming home from Exeter and he’s attacked by vampires…” I love Whoopi Goldberg.) Then she introduced Kathy Bates – I know, right!? – who said that she might be the only person who’s okay with having the name Stephen King in her eventual obituary. Then there was a short film up on the giant screens to introduce him as set technicians scrambled furiously on the stage. When the film finished, the stage lights came up, and there at the extreme left of the stage was a raised platform, with a chair set in the middle and some folksy accent pieces – like old-time tools and wicker baskets – set up behind. In short, it was a set designed for a down-home storyteller, and I inwardly applauded at the restraint shown by the Radio City Music Hall folks for not making the whole thing all “spooky.”
King read the short story “The Revenge of Lard-Ass Hogan,” which translates well to a big crowd because it’s funny and because it’s fun to hear. Judging by the audience around me – all either J.K. Rowling or one of the four or five Irving people up on the balcony – they were surprised and delighted by the story. The reaction I was most interested in was the eight-year-old girl in front of me, who seemed almost supernaturally well-behaved and willing to listen to and enjoy the other writers before the Harry Potter Lady came on. She seemed to really dig King’s story, which made me so happy. Then it was time for John Irving!
Andre Brauer of TV’s Homicide: Life on the Street arrived to introduce Irving, for no discernable reason. There’s a short film and then Irving’s set appears: a collegiate professor’s study, with a beat-up leather chair. Irving appears on stage to thunderous applause I didn’t expect and reads an excerpt from A Prayer for Owen Meany. Unlike King, he stays seated the whole time. Like King, his reading involves vomit. Charming! (And the girl in front of me giggled and applauded, which was also unexpected. I really like this girl.)
Then Jon Stewart appears and the audience goes insane. He makes some lighthearted jokes about how he was just on the phone with his friend Mel Gibson, and that he wished everyone mazel tov. Everyone laughs. Then he introduces J.K. Rowling and people start screaming. After her short film, her set – regal, with lots of “wizardly” purple and silver flourishes – appears and she sits, reading a long excerpt from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. She seemed a bit nervous when she first sat down, but her reading voice is warm and assured. Like the other two, she gets into the voices of her characters. God, I love that. When she finishes, the applause and cheers are deafening, and I think something Stephen King himself echoed later in the night: All these people are here for books. Not music or movies or video games, but books. Isn’t that amazing?
The question and answer period begins, and I’m nervous. When interviewers talk to King, they always ask the same insipid questions: Where do you get your ideas? What’s it like to be famous? What kind of scary stuff happened to you as a kid? This one looks a little more promising, though: of the thousand questions the promotion people got, they’ve selected a dozen to be read by the people who asked them. This looks fun!
A girl stepped up and asked J.K. Rowling what Hermione would see if she looked into the Mirror of Erised; Rowling looked delighted and said she’d never been asked that before. John Irving gets a question about the genesis of his novel The Fourth Hand, which I was particularly curious about because that’s the one Irving novel I’ve tried and never finished. He gives a long, thoughtful answer and everyone claps.
And then a woman steps up and says her question is for Stephen King. She wears a smile that seems to indicate that she knows she’s stumbled upon the best question anyone could ever ask. “Mr. King,” she asks, “What … scares … you?”
I was in the balcony. I nearly leapt over the railing and charged her, bellowing with my fists out. You have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ask National Book Award recipient and the world’s most popular writer a single question, and that’s what you come up with? A question he’s heard over and over since Carrie came out? Oh my God, I have so much hate right now.
Then Irving gets questions about his being a feminist author and how he constructs his novels, and Rowling gets questions about her writing process and whether she believes in redemption for characters who have seemed immoral in the past. And then King gets, “With stories so demented, how do you stay normal?” I’m serious! Now, I know King writes to the “common man,” and that, yes, horror has been a primary focus of his career, but hello, people? You have the most popular author in the world here! How about some questions about how he writes? How about whether his gradual move to more mainstream stories was conscious or unconscious? How about questions about the next novel after Lisey’s Story?
And that’s when it hit me: this is King’s most vocal audience, and this is why no one treats him seriously. I’ve run into people at the bookstore who’ve told me they don’t have to read a King novel if they’ve already seen the movie. Still the most prevailing opinion by non-King-readers is that he’s “that scary guy.” Look, I have no problem with King reaching out to every type of reader, from the guy who just reads it for the story to the woman who does her thesis on the themes and tropes found in the Bachman novels. That’s what’s best about King. But questions like this at a huge event just reinforce the stereotype that King writes stupid books for stupid people, and it’s an attitude that just frustrates and confuses me.
Still, with all the authors on stage and the spotlight on them, I forget all of that. The only thing that’s really important is that there are six thousand people in the seats at Radio City Music Hall, and that they’ve all been brought here by the power of good books well told. When I stand up and applaud as all three exit stage left, it’s not that momentary frustration I feel. It’s the joy of seeing my favorite writer and two others bringing people here with the force of their words, and reinforcing the thought that books are still important, still vital, and still awesomely powerful.