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 cliches 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's 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?
1975'Salem's LotHorror3.992480003.9410000
1977The ShiningHorror/Psychological Horror4.188360004.1115000King moves from ME to CO
1977Rage*Psychological Thriller3.8230003.38747King moves back to ME
1978The StandPost Apocalyptic4.344740004.3314000
1978Night Shift+SS3.961130003.86300
1979The Long Walk*Psychological Horror4.11800003.843400
1979The Dead ZoneSupernatural Thriller3.91400003.777000
1980FirestarterScience fiction3.851490003.646600
1981Roadwork*Psychological Thriller3.59200003.841200
1981CujoHorror3.651680003.436700King's intervention
1982The Running Man*Science fiction3.81680003.632400
1982The Dark Tower: The GunslingerFantasy/Western3.983740003.8615000Was originally written from 1977-1981
1982Different Seasons+SS4.341390003.986500
1983Pet SemataryHorror3.912960003.729100
1983Cycle of the WerewolfHorror3.62360003.392000
1984The TalismanFantasy4.12870004.047200
1984Thinner*Horror3.671370003.415300"Richard Bachman" is unveiled
1985Skeleton Crew+SS3.93880003.775900
1987The Eyes of the DragonFantasy3.92820003.827500
1987The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the ThreeFantasy/Western4.231600004.111000
1987MiseryPsychological Horror4.113560003.949900
1987The Tommyknockers Science fiction3.48960003.336500First book written after sobriety?
1989The Dark HalfPsychological Horror3.741000003.566000
1990Four Past Midnight+SS3.9820003.715700
1991The Dark Tower III: The Waste LandsFantasy/Western4.241370004.0810000
1991Needful ThingsHorror3.871620003.697500First book written after sobriety?
1992Gerald's GameSuspense3.471060003.295700
1992Dolores ClaibornePsychological Thriller3.81990003.645700
1993Nightmares & Dreamscapes+SS3.9590003.694300
1995Rose MadderFantasy3.66760003.485400
1996The Green MileFantasy4.421920004.238400
1996The Regulators*Science fiction/horror3.64540003.374600
1997The Dark Tower IV: Wizard and GlassFantasy/Western4.241220004.079400
1998Bag of BonesGothic fiction3.871380003.717900
1999The Girl Who Loved Tom GordonHorror3.561030003.446500King's car accident
1999Hearts in Atlantis+SS3.8710003.666000
2001DreamcatcherScience fiction3.591230003.326600
2001Black HouseHorror3.99450003.785400
2002From a Buick 8Horror3.42500003.294800
2002Everything's Eventual+SS3.94680003.756900
2003The Dark Tower V: Wolves of the CallaFantasy/Western4.171100004.038300
2004The Dark Tower VI: Song of SusannahFantasy/Western3.98970003.877800
2004The Dark Tower VII: The Dark TowerFantasy/Western4.271050004.147800
2005The Colorado KidCrime fiction3.28220003.22400
2006Lisey's StoryHorror3.65550003.65900
2007Blaze*Crime fiction3.66300003.462800
2008Duma KeyPsychological Horror3.93800003.895800
2008Just After Sunset+SS3.85380003.713600
2009Under the DomeScience fiction3.892030003.847800
2010Full Dark, No Stars+SS4.03700003.963400
201111/22/63Science fiction/alternate history4.293060004.27400
2012The Dark Tower: The Wind Through the KeyholeFantasy/Western4.15470004.072000
2013JoylandCrime fiction/mystery3.9830003.92400
2013Doctor SleepHorror4.11170004.063300
2014Mr. MercedesCrime fiction3.921510003.852700
2014RevivalCrime fiction3.75690003.691700
2015Finders KeepersCrime fiction4.03660003.971600
2015The Bazaar of Bad Dreams+SS3.92290003.911000
2016End of WatchCrime fiction4.09470003.911000
* 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 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' 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.

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