Observations from the Audience

Elvira and I saw Neal Stephenson speak at the Bagdad theater last night here in Portland. We’ve been to several author events hosted by Powell’s over the last few months and without exception they were fun and enlightening. This was the biggest event we’ve been to so far. The Bagdad, for you non-Portland residents, is a beautiful old restored theater run by McMenimen’s and they often host speakers and show second run and old movies. Besides being a lavishly restored classic theater with all the decor and atmosphere that entails, they also sell beer from local craft breweries and pizza from a local restaurant, so it’s pretty much one of the greatest places on Earth.

We’ve been to enough of these author events now to see a pattern of reoccurring motifs emerge, worth commenting on:

The Standard Questions. “Where do you get your ideas?” seems to have fallen out of fashion, thankfully. Now, it’s all about tips to young and aspiring writers. You can tell that this is a popular question because so far, every author we’ve seen speak has a tidy payload of a response ready to be deployed and done so with aplomb. It’s usually your standard writing wisdom (write 10,000 pages and throw them away, write every day, write what you want to read, etc.) wrapped up in an anecdote they or some other writer has told a hundred times. This is one of those rhetorical flourishes that, if you’re going to be a traveling writer doing signings and speaking engagements, you must be able to handle. Stephenson did a bang up job, and even handled the PoMo “How do you know what you experience is the same as what I experience?” question with grace.*

The Response to Fannish Enthusiasm. This is always the hardest to watch from the audience, because there are some fans who are so very, very enthusiastic about one particular aspect of¬† an author’s oeuvre that it overshadows all rational thought and colors their interactions with the author in a way that can be downright uncomfortable for a bystander to witness. Stephenson wins mucho points in this area, since the overwhelming majority of the Fannish questions he fielded were either directly or indirectly related to his book, Snow Crash.

I imagine every author is thrilled to know that they’ve written something that resonates so profoundly with their audience and part of a book tour is geared towards promoting not just the new book but your work in general. Still, having people come up to you and say, “I love what you wrote 20 years ago, when will you do more of that?” has got to get old real quick.

This is a sub variety of “I love how you do X, you should do Y”. You could tell Neal Stephenson has been getting this one a lot this book tour. His new book, Reamde is a thriller, ostensibly concerning the developer of a popular MMO. Now, it’s obvious that Mr. Stephenson is not nearly as big of a geek as his fans wish he were. While he may be fascinated by emerging technology and hackers and the Internet and MMOs, he clearly does not spend his free time playing World of Warcraft. And yet a significant portion of the Snow Crash fans implored him to write an MMO, either based on Snow Crash or just in general. Keep in mind, this is a guy who writes long, complex, thoughtful digressive and expansive 1000 page novels for a living. And he just finished telling the person who asked the question before you that the promise of the free and open Internet never came to fruition and it’s now mostly full of lies and bullshit. The closest he got to openly mocking someone was when they asked if he was ever going to use his twitter account (apparently someone is on twitter as Neal Stephenson but it ain’t him).

This is part of a larger cultural trend I’ve noticed, concerning the undervalued status of novels as merely rough drafts for movies or some other multimedia franchise (like MMOs) but that’s a rant for another time. Suffice it to say, Neal Stephenson enjoys writing big honking novels, and makes a decent living at it. Why would he want to get into that feverish snake pit that is the gaming industry when he can hang out in Seattle, writing¬† novels on his laptop?

The Soapbox Questions. These are tricky. Some authors avoid answering them, because they’re invitations to rant and they obviously don’t want to offend the portion of their audience who may not agree with their peculiar stance on a given issue. But at the same time, authors end up with a shortlist of topics near and dear to their heart, mostly because they tend to feature repeatedly in their work, so obviously you want to listen rapturously as your favorite author extemporizes on the latest development in said area of interest. Stephenson managed to address the Libertarian question without it derailing the discussion into a political shooting match, which really takes some skill.

(The short version of what he said: he sympathizes with some of the hacker/libertarian ideals but recognizes that in modern American politics, Libertarianism that has been coopted by people whose goal is decidedly not making more people free.)

All in all it was a fun evening (though note to the Bagdad theater lighting crew: there’s an author on stage who is going to read and talk for the better part of 2 hours and all you can think to light him with are red and blue spotlights? really?) If you get a chance to see Neal Stephenson on this or any other tour, I highly recommend it.

*On a somewhat related note, because it did come up as a topic last night, “Write what you know” is the single worst piece of writing advice to ever get such universal dispersal. Every writer I’ve seen speak has had to deal with someone in the crowd presenting this moldy chestnut in one way or another. The problem is, it’s not a piece of advice, so much as a pithy aphorism that sounds like advice. Taken literally, it unleashes a plague of autobiographical fiction on the land, leading to meandering, navel gazing prose that replaces any sort of real internal examination with a string of pointless sentences beginning with “I”. A less aphoristic but more accurate bit of advice would be, “let your life experiences and personal skill set inform your writing.” Borrow details from your life but don’t drop people and experiences from the real world into your book with just a name change and wink.