Neal Stephenson exists in a realm somewhere between literary establishments. Too profound and skillful to be pure escapist lark; too imaginative and fanciful to be pure literary grit. Too broad of an appeal to be underground cult; too niche of an audience to be mass-market powerhouse. I was recently recommended one of his books by a friend of mine who plays Magic the Gathering on a regular, near-professional basis. A grown man. Yes, this happens. I was also recently recommended one of his books by a member of the Rutgers University English Department faculty. Truth be told, I’ve never read any Neal Stephenson. Partly because I was never quite sure how to read Neal Stephenson. So when I heard that Neal Stephenson would be reading, himself, I didn’t want to miss a chance to better understand what makes this phenomenon of a writer such a unique and broadly appealing member of the national literary landscape.
widely lauded cyber-adventure Reamde (check out this Rain Taxi review!), Neal Stephenson came to the Twin Cities on Monday, August 13 to read from something quite different. A collection of essays written over the last decade and published in various magazines, Some Remarks turns the author’s attention to a variety of topics: many of which, I was glad to learn, tackle the dichotomous nature of his own career. Though he didn’t come right out and state that the themes he discussed paralleled his own trajectory and experience, the essays Stephenson read Monday night each dealt with the disconnect between “sci-fi” and “the mundane” realms of literature and pop-culture.
Why is sci-fi literature considered a “genre,” like literary fiction’s snot-faced kid brother? Clearly, the masses enjoy it, as Stephenson was quick to point out that nearly every successful movie, movie franchise, and television series over the last fifty years has been a sci-fi/fantasy narrative. Though he didn’t discuss the many differences between these two mediums (watching movies and reading books), the author did examine how our love of imagination and novelty informs larger cultural patterns. For instance, his first essay turned a critique of the choppy, poorly-acted Star Wars prequel trilogy into a treatise on US import/export policy. (And it worked! Go read it.) The second essay explored why certain actors can successfully portray wise aliens or robots, and how this relates to the “bifurcated careers” of these actors. More importantly, though, this serves as the foundation for our culture’s bifurcated tastes in regard to sci-fi and the mundane. (Quickly: it’s because certain actors are better at projecting intelligence, which is what we all relate to as audience members. How vain of us.)
Because of Stephenson’s voluble fan base, Magers & Quinn pulled out all the stops. They lined up chairs along the long portion of the back room–no getting tucked into the poetry section for this guy! Still, standing-room competed for sight lines up and down the aisles (most spectators seemed to find one). One thing was for sure: I was in the minority for not having read Stephenson’s work. This audience was on the edge of its seat, culled from the far corners of the Twin Cities. When the Magers employee asked if it was anyone’s first time in the bookstore, a significant number of hands shot up. One man in the front row said it was “The best store in Minneapolis. Way better than Barnes & Noble, anyday.”
That sentiment piqued my interest–are the types of readers who read Anathem and The Mongoliad and Cryptonomicon, are they the types of readers who depend on Barnes & Noble to discover new books? I don’t frequent corporate bookstores, and I try not to have a strong opinion one way or another–a bookstore is a good thing, however hierarchical–but I also don’t read sci-fi. My hunch is that this corporate, sales-driven model plays a more serious role in the bifurcation of tastes that Stephenson dissected in his essays than his essays give credence to. Wherever they bought their books, and whatever marketing or system of recommendation that led them to Stephenson’s books, the audience awaited the appearance of this writer into whose imagined worlds they had clearly immersed themselves in for potentially entire months of their lives with nervous, giddy anticipation, as though expecting to be transported by the image of the author in front of them into those fantastic worlds they’s spent so much time in. It seemed all the more painfully disappointing, then, when Neal Stephenson finally stepped up to the microphone and basically mumbled, “Hi. I’m going to read now.”
The author read his work with a humdrum, baritone drawl so unenthusiastic I felt bad for the capacity crowd. He didn’t offer any intonation in his sentences, he didn’t gesticulate or vary his pacing. He read slowly and steadily, and just like that massive yellow scrolling type that introduces every Star Wars movie, the framing faded away and delivered us straight to the important stuff: the story. Charisma, it seems, is not always an immediate thing: as Stephenson worked his way through the allusions and parallels and theses of his essays, the crowd was invested, paying attention, and learning. I learned, for instance, that I’m way more of a sci-fi fan than I thought–there wasn’t a reference he made I didn’t understand.
That portion of the evening–the me not understanding stuff part–began as soon as the audience started asking questions. It wasn’t only that I didn’t know the references, I didn’t know the language: fabricated plot elements and imagined realms of existence that, to a layperson, had no connection to reality. For two essays, Stephenson had opined about the virtues of “geeking out” as opposed to “vegging out,” and it was clear within the first three questions of the Q&A that this room full of readers had geeked out hard on Neal Stephenson. Neal Stephenson was their Star Wars, their Battlestar Galactica, he was their Spok and Elrond, their Xena and their Ripley, right down to her shaved head. But now I fear I’m giving myself away a bit.
Were you There? Have something to add, or a different take on this event? Chime in on the comments below, or send us an email at LitSeen.Mpls@gmail.com! Be sure to check the schedule to the right and the Twin Cities Literary Calendar and be at the next LitSeen attended event. See you around!