Neal Stephenson Interview: Dante vs. Beowulf

by Dale Dougherty

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I enjoyed the Slashdot interview with author Neal Stephenson. He answers a question about his popularity by saying that "one way to classify artists is by to whom they are accountable." He characterizes himself as a "Beowulf," working within a relatively new tradition of popular novelists, able to support himself through his work. In contrast, "Dante" writers working within an academic literary tradition depend upon patrons or academic postings that underwrite the work.

Here's his insight into how the two traditions interact:"It has happened many times in history that new systems will come along and, instead of obliterating the old, will surround and encapsulate them and work in symbiosis with them but otherwise pretty much leave them alone (think mitochondria) and sometimes I get the feeling that something similar is happening with these two literary worlds. The fact that we are having a discussion like this one on a forum such as Slashdot is Exhibit A."

In response to a question about whether hacking tools should be protected under the US consitituion, he responds: "I'm pretty sure that the Founding Fathers were thinking of flintlocks, not perl scripts, when they wrote the Second Amendment."

On producing his own books: "For the Baroque Cycle books I needed to convert my manuscripts, which were all TeX files, into a Quark format used by the publisher. ... This was nasty and tedious but, in the end, reasonably satisfying."

On why brick-and-mortar bookstores are still around: "Because it turns out that a bookstore is a lot more than a machine that swaps money for books."