Alistair Harper: Chickenhead of the Month

It’s been a long while since I awarded anyone the “Chickenhead of the Month” prize, but Alistair Harper comes to us from across the Atlantic with a stupidity that is simply too remarkable to let slip.

Alistair Harper knows nothing of the publishing industry. His whole thesis is wrong. How he got to be a Guardian blogger or paid to write is truly amazing. His charge — that “the chip on [Stephen] King’s shoulder as big as the vast American states that are usually his setting” — does not hold. I don’t believe that any author can truly control the nonsense that appears on book covers. Harper doesn’t seem to understand that once a manuscript is turned in, the author is often at the behest of marketing forces. Because the publishing industry is, you know, an industry. And an industry expects to sell products. Or does Harper honestly believe that the publishing industry is in this bookselling business for the philanthropy? If phrases like “words are his power” or “this book will cause you to sodomize a goat” will sell more units, then the publishers will put these words, however preposterous, on covers to sell books. And how is King being uncertain about the shelf life of his work egotistical? Newsflash to Harper: When it comes to nonfiction, King is often as subtle as a Bengal tiger running around Grand Central, and he would be the first to admit this. He is, as he mentioned in Danse Macabre, a self-described “burgers and fries of literature.” And had Harper even bothered to read the introduction to Blaze, for crying out loud a few pages he could have flipped through in a bookstore*, a book that this sad illiterate hasn’t even bothered to examine, he’d realize that King extensively rewrote the book. This hardly a case of a manuscript merely being “dusted off.” And how is it egotistical exactly to want to finish a series when a million readers — many of whom have written King letters and expressed hopes that he would finish, as indicated in the same introduction that Harper quotes from — clamor for it? Has it not occurred to Harper that King simply cannot stop writing? That isn’t egotistical. That’s the mark of a hypergraphic personality.

If Harper hates King, he should simply be honest and say so. But in hiding behind this “Stephen King has an ego” gambit, he attempts to pretend, like some bumbling teenager trying to figure out how to open up a golden Trojan package but too afraid to ask for help, that it’s about King the person and not King the writer. This is hubris of the first order. It’s the kind of thing you expect from 1600 Pennsylvania, not 119 Farringdon Road

* — The UK edition likewise possesses an introduction by King. If it is different from the US edition, please feel free to correct me.


  1. Wow, that just pisses me off. It’s the kind of article written solely to do just that: nfuriate people. Count me among the insecure who’ve stopped at bookstores to sign stock. And I imagine I did it for the same reason why King–and thousands of other writers–have done so: to hopefully sell more books and gain more readers. If anything I give King credit, after selling millions of copies and earning enough money to buy several large islands, for still having the desire to woo new readers. If that’s looked at as a fault, may all authors have such faults.

    In fact I’m mad at myself for commenting on this idiotic article because I’m sure that’s what Harper would want.

  2. You’re right. Authors usually have very little say over what their covers look like. The marketing department and the book designers have much more say during the design of the physical book. By that time, the author has usually signed off on it, or will be pushed to sign off on it, once the design is ready. This has both positive, negative, dadaist, hilarious, unfortunate and mysterious results, depending on the artistic and design sensibilities of the writer, and the original intent of the writer, vs. the designer who is trying to express that original intent vs. the publisher who is trying to be sure the book gets noticed in the first place.

  3. We should all appreciate the wonderful irony that Stephen King is wildly successful despite that (or because) he doesn’t write “for the money”…

    … and still he catches flak for being successful.

    (BTW, writers who are successful but cynical or self-deprecating about it… do they also receive the kind of flak that King does??)

  4. Well, some authors do seem to have quite a say over what their covers look like. Take a case like Thomas Pynchon: It’s hardly a coincidence that none of his seven first editions (published by five different publishers) have carried blurbs by other authors, that none of them have carried a photo of Pynchon, and that none of them have carried that otherwise omnipresent sentence on the cover: “Author of [insert title]”. Also, the designer of “Mason & DIxon” has reported that Pynchon was quite involved with the design process. So clearly an author like Pynchon does have a say. Now, Stephen King may not have the same literary stature as Thomas Pynchon, but more importantly: he sells much, much better than Thomas Pynchon, and any publishers who wanted him on their list would, I’m pretty sure, do what King told them, if he decided to make certain demands. I’m not saying that he should (I neither have a problem with King or with the way his books are packaged), but my guess is that if he started acting up and refused, say, to have his photo on the dust-jacket, the publishers would more or less have to accept this – otherwise this lucrative source of income could just pack his stuff and take his business to other publishers who would be happy to have him.

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