What to Learn from Neal Stephenson
As a writer, there is an inherent risk in reading. It’s a risk you must take, of course, and risk you couldn’t avoid taking anyway, since all writers start as readers and remain such. The risk is reading a novel (or story or poem or screenplay or whatever) that you simultaneously love and realize that you, yourself, could never ever write it yourself. It is a moment that is both inspiring and disheartening; you see, with a clarity that is often unobtainable, the sheer heights you must scale to stand shoulder to shoulder with your would-be peers. If you’re like me, a book like that can put you in a writing tailspin for a week or more as you try to parse out how the author did it and what the magnitude of their achievement means for your own work.
There are a couple authors who do that to me. Ursula K LeGuin, for instance, has an easy, elegant prose style that I can’t quite wrap my head around. Margaret Atwood builds characters so real that it seems impossible that they don’t truly exist. Most consistently in my adulthood, though, the single author that has managed to flabbergast me most often has been, without a doubt, Neal Stephenson.
Now, I don’t intend to make this post all gushy and fanboyish, because in all honestly I am not a gusher or a fanboy over Mr. Stephenson. His books, as impressive as they are, aren’t flawless paradigms of narrative prose. They sometimes have pacing issues, sometimes they seem to end at odd points, and there are moments where Stephenson’s hyper-cool style lead the plot on tangents that, while fun, also seem to dilute the narrative power of the work. That said, they are still a million times better than anything I am likely to write, so who cares what I think?
The feeling you get reading a Stephenson novel is that you are in the hands of a storyteller both infinitely hip and monumentally intelligent. He manages to make Sumerian myth gel with futuristic motorcycle races all while actually educating you about the basic framework of computer science. If the purpose of reading fiction is to be transported into other places and other lives, reading a book like Cryptonomicon or The Confusion is like buying a ticket on Magellan’s first cruise round the world – it might take you years to complete, but oh the places you’ll go! The sheer density of information is overwhelming; the tangents glow as brightly as the main storyline, the secondary characters evoke your senses as much as the protagonist until, eventually, you have difficulty telling whose story this is and what it’s about. Weirdly, amazingly enough, though, you don’t care.
I’ve read five of Stephenson’s books; I find myself constantly recommending them to people. They baffle me at the same time as they impress me. How is this possible? How can a five-hundred page book that goes on innumerable tangents and deals with a half-dozen seemingly unconnected characters still be fun on every single page? How (and why) does he condense so much information about the real world into a single volume, even when very little of it seems essential to the plot? To be honest, I’m still trying to figure it out.
My Technology in Literature class is about to embark upon Snow Crash, Stephenson’s cyberpunk classic. Though they are bemoaning its great length, I know they’ll love it anyway (even if they don’t finish it). This will be my fourth or fifth time reading the book, and each time I’ve been able to unpack more and more of the dense story and apply it to a kind of thematic framework. It’s fascinating and so unlike so much other science fiction out there. What have I learned from it as a writer? Well, a lot of different things; a lot about how to weave humor into narrative, a lot about how to manipulate style to reflect character voice without speaking first person, a lot about how to show rather than tell. Most importantly, though, is this central lesson:
I will never write a book like Neal Stephenson does, and that is okay. That, ultimately, is the point. Neither I nor anybody else should tear themselves down over the achievements of another writer, because this isn’t ultimately a competition. We are joining a conversation in which writers like Neal Stephenson are part. Should we bring our A-game? Hell yes, but even more important than bringing our A-game, we should also remember to bring ourselves. So be like Stephenson; be your own original.