Thursday, October 21, 2004


Apologies in advance for the length of this post.

Below is an (abridged) exchange between novelist Neal Stephenson and a reader. My comments come after.

The reader, MosesJones, asks:

Science Fiction is normally relegated to specialist publications rather than having reviews in the mainstream press. Seen as "fringe" and a bit sad, it's seldom reviewed with anything more than condescension by the "quality" press.
Does it bother you that people like Jeffrey Archer or Jackie Collins seem to get more respect for their writing than you?

Stephenson replies, in part:

[A] while back, I went to a writers' conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we'd exchanged a bit of of small talk, she asked me "And where do you teach?" just as naturally as one Slashdotter would ask another "And which distro do you use?"

I was taken aback. "I don't teach anywhere," I said.

Her turn to be taken aback. "Then what do you do?"

"I'm...a writer," I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say, since she already knew that.

"Yes, but what do you do?"

I couldn't think of how to answer the question - I'd already answered it!

"You can't make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make money?" she tried.

"From...being a writer," I stammered.

At this point she finally got it, and her whole affect changed. She wasn't snobbish about it. But it was obvious that, in her mind, the sort of writer who actually made a living from it was an entirely different creature from the sort she generally associated with.

And once I got over the excruciating awkwardness of this conversation, I began to think she was right in thinking so. One way to classify artists is by to whom they are accountable.


Accountability in the writing profession has been bifurcated for many centuries. I already mentioned that Dante and other writers were supported by patrons at least as far back as the Renaissance. But I doubt that Beowulf was written on commission. Probably there was a collection of legends and tales that had been passed along in an oral tradition---which is just a fancy way of saying that lots of people liked those stories and wanted to hear them told. And at some point perhaps there was an especially well-liked storyteller who pulled a few such tales together and fashioned them into the what we now know as Beowulf. Maybe there was a king or other wealthy patron who then caused the tale to be written down by a scribe. But I doubt it was created at the behest of a king. It was created at the behest of lots and lots of intoxicated Frisians sitting around the fire wanting to hear a yarn. And there was no grand purpose behind its creation, as there was with the painting of the Sistine Chapel.

The novel is a very new form of art. It was unthinkable until the invention of printing and impractical until a significant fraction of the population became literate. But when the conditions were right, it suddenly became huge. The great serialized novelists of the 19th Century were like rock stars or movie stars. The printing press and the apparatus of publishing had given these creators a means to bypass traditional arbiters and gatekeepers of culture and connect directly to a mass audience. And the economics worked out such that they didn't need to land a commission or find a patron in order to put bread on the table. The creators of those novels were therefore able to have a connection with a mass audience and a livelihood fundamentally different from other types of artists.

Nowadays, rock stars and movie stars are making all the money. But the publishing industry still works for some lucky novelists who find a way to establish a connection with a readership sufficiently large to put bread on their tables. It's conventional to refer to these as "commercial" novelists, but I hate that term, so I'm going to call them Beowulf writers.

But this is not true for a great many other writers who are every bit as talented and worthy of finding readers. And so, in addition, we have got an alternate system that makes it possible for those writers to pursue their careers and make their voices heard. Just as Renaissance princes supported writers like Dante because they felt it was the right thing to do, there are many affluent persons in modern society who, by making donations to cultural institutions like universities, support all sorts of artists, including writers. Usually they are called "literary" as opposed to "commercial" but I hate that term too, so I'm going to call them Dante writers. And this is what I mean when I speak of a bifurcated system.

Like all tricks for dividing people into two groups, this is simplistic, and needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But there is a cultural difference between these two types of writers, rooted in to whom they are accountable, and it explains what MosesJones is complaining about. Beowulf writers and Dante writers appear to have the same job, but in fact there is a quite radical difference between them---hence the odd conversation that I had with my fellow author at the writer's conference. Because she'd never heard of me, she made the quite reasonable assumption that I was a Dante writer---one so new or obscure that she'd never seen me mentioned in a journal of literary criticism, and never bumped into me at a conference. Therefore, I couldn't be making any money at it. Therefore, I was most likely teaching somewhere. All perfectly logical. In order to set her straight, I had to let her know that the reason she'd never heard of me was because I was famous.


So what of MosesJones's original question, which was entitled "The lack of respect?" My answer is that I don't pay that much notice to these things because I am aware at some level that I am on one side of the bifurcation and most literary critics are on the other, and we simply are not that relevant to each other's lives and careers.

What I've excerpted here is about 40% of a much longer, more detailed, and very interesting piece of thought which can be read in full here.

My thoughts? I've always respected writers of so-called "genre fiction" more than writers of so-called "literary fiction." It just seems to me (and yeah, this ought to be counter-intuitive, but somehow it's not) that genre fiction is actually more freeing than literary fiction. Once you learn the rules, you start figuring out ways to bend them and make the story you're telling that much more interesting. But you're still, fundamentally, hewing to the rules that have been established. You're writing a detective story - therefore, there must be crime, investigation, punishment. Once those have been slotted into place, you can talk about any other thing you want. Your detective can be a jazz freak, and go off on pages-long digressions about Thelonious Monk's Columbia albums vs. his Riverside albums, or whatever. And if you're a good enough storyteller, the reader will follow along.

I've only read one book by Neal Stephenson; it was okay, but it didn't give me enough to make me seek out more of his work. I have bought every one of William Gibson's novels, though, and his most recent, Pattern Recognition, is one of the best books I've ever read, genre be damned.

I'm hoping that Running The Voodoo Down will be the last music-related book I write. I'm hoping that the novel I'm currently writing will sell, and sell for quit-your-day-job money. I want to make a living as a novelist. I think this is a realistic aim, because I am writing a novel that is likely to hold appeal for a large number of people. It has sex, binge drinking, porn, scatological humor, violence, sex, heavy metal, midgets, emotionally wrenching family crises, and sex.

I'm not doing this because I'm a hack, scrambling in the gutter for a buck; I'm doing it because this is the story it's in me to tell. If I felt genuinely compelled to write stories of pinch-faced angst among middle-aged New England college professors, or whatever respectable literary authors write about these days, I'd do it. But I feel like writing punchy prose about porn, with midgets and shit jokes and fistfights (and a son's struggle to come to grips with his parents' divorce, and his father's death) thrown in. And if I'm never a literary sensation, that's cool.

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