Great review, Alan. Given your fantasy of a James Wood essay about Stephenson, you might enjoy reading Stephenson’s thoughts about the differences between his sort of writer and the sort that gets reviews by “critics” (he calls them “Beowulf writers” and “Dante writers”) it’s the response to the second question in this interview:
To set it up, a brief anecdote: 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?”…
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.
Michael, I love that Stephenson interview. My favorite part comes a little later: “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.” Priceless.