A couple posts ago I questioned the exclusion of genre fiction from university literature courses. In my last, I ranted about Stephen King’s The Shining. In this one, I mean to combine those topics, asking—to paraphrase Jack Torrance—should I take my own medicine and teach The Shining.
I’m entering a new academic year and have, if I so desire, the option of including The Shining in a course. In the past, I’ve taught books that could be considered genre (The Maltese Falcon, The Quiet American, and Frankenstein, for example). But would I teach that famous 1977 King novel?
For one thing, I usually teach introductory courses, and I look for shorter novels. If something breaks the 250-page threshold, I can lose students; they are reading several other texts. But more importantly, The Shining left me unsatisfied as a piece of literature, probably because of its reliance on genre (that sounds elitist, I know). The Shining might have been a transcendent novel if it weren’t for the “shining” itself, that psycho-sensory quality that always provided young Danny with an escape from reality. Danny has a superpower, and writing a convincing, true, and honest superpower story is difficult. But writing that superpower story when you already have a great, true story is, well, unfortunate (and I mean true in the special way only fiction can be true) .
King provides ample fodder for an English classroom. His writing is intertextual (it explicitly and implicitly evokes a multitude of texts, modern and historical). His alternation between point-of-views is worth talking about (didn’t work for me, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t work). His senses of rhythm and structure and description are well-honed, even in this relatively early work.
But “the shining,” that get-out-of-jail-free card, destroys the story. Consider this novel: a playwright and teacher, having lost everything but his wife and son, takes a job as the winter caretaker (that’s an allegorical/loaded phrase) at an isolated and storied, some say haunted, Colorado Rockies hotel. The isolation and hotel awaken a rage thought left behind with the writer’s alcoholic binges. What started as a last shot at redemption turns into a nightmare of suspicion, visions, and violence that may destroy a family if spring doesn’t come soon. That’s the novel that could’ve been. That novel could still be a horror story. Everything—the sights and smells and actions of the hotel—can stay.
But “the shining” keeps the novel from being true. It becomes voyeuristic. If Danny can escape through his mindpowers, he isn’t like other boys in the midst of alcoholic fathers. He’s special. If Danny can defeat the hotel with his mindpowers—and a fortunate oversight by the hotel monster—he isn’t like other boys who are destroyed by fathers and mothers and psychologically violent houses. Jack’s story is true. Wendy’s is true. But Danny, and his “shining,” that is our escape—and if Danny can escape, then we, ironically, avoid the real horror of the Overlook Hotel and its residents.
Perhaps those critiques suggest a reason to teach the novel. After all, there are so many things done well, that the problems (or what I see as problems) can teach readers about literature. But, as tempting as it may be, the novel won’t be in any of my classes this year.
Am I wrong? Do you think The Shining should be read as college “literature”? And does King’s use of “the shining” take you out or bring you into the story?