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An arrogant writer gets punished by readers

Neal Stephenson. Wikipedia photo.

Four years ago here, I reviewed Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. Though I gave the book four of five stars, I was turned off by Stephenson’s increasingly insufferable narcissism. I wrote:

The bottom line, for me at least, is that Stephenson writes must-read science fiction. However, I’m getting stronger and stronger whiffs of an arrogant and elitist attitude that can spoil fiction if it gets out of hand. Stephenson is most comfortable with characters who have big egos, lots of admirers, and Ph.D.’s. If you read the acknowledgements or check out his personal web site, it’s pretty clear that he runs with the gazillionaires of the tech industry — the lords of the universe — and that he can’t much be bothered by us mouth breathers.

Stephenson probably will get a movie deal for this book. It’s the kind of space spectacle that Hollywood loves, and I’m sure that Stephenson knew that when he wrote it. I’d give it four out of five stars. Unless he does something completely different with his next book, I’ll have read enough Stephenson.

Now Stephenson’s next book is out — Fall; or, Dodge in Hell. Based on the reviews, I have my answer. Stephenson did not do something completely different in his next book. Instead, he doubled down on his insufferability.

Sixty-five Amazon reviews are in only two weeks after the book was released. I don’t think I have ever seen a popular author so savaged by Amazon reviewers. The book’s average rating is 3 stars, and there are more 1-star reviews that 5-star reviews. At Goodreads, the ratings are running higher — 3.7 stars. But that does not surprise me. Goodreads is such a hangout for vindictive brats who know nothing about literature that Goodreads ratings are often a contrary indicator — the better a book is, the more Goodread hates it, and vice versa. Whereas reviewers on Amazon are generally much more mature and well-read. Disclaimer: I have not read this book, and I’m not going to.

One of the Amazon reviewers nails it: “Unfortunately, like Robert A. Heinlein and George R.R. Martin before him, Neal Stephenson has apparently become so successful that no editor will stand up to him, and no publisher will force him to accept serious editing. That’s the only explanation for this self-indulgent, nonsensical, and boring allegory-cum-digital fairytale…. And so, the unthinkable has occurred, at least for me — I will never again pre-order a Neal Stephenson book.”

Having been an editor for much of my life, I am familiar with this phenomenon: author ego. An editor’s job is to defend the reader’s interest while remaining on friendly terms with the writer. When an editor and a writer work together to improve a piece of writing, it should be a collaborative process, and a good editor will generally be able to persuade the writer to the editor’s point of view. The editing process thus makes a piece of writing much better. But when a writer cannot accept a good editor’s judgment that the reader is being abused, and when the editor is somehow overridden, then books like this one happen.

A reviewer for the New York Times said that this book “dazzles.” Maybe the reviewer really believed that. Or maybe it was a case of a reviewer being afraid to stand up to an author. If you occupy the same coastal social world, who wants to be on Stephenson’s hit list?

It is increasingly difficult to find good science fiction. I don’t know why. Maybe my taste has changed. Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature is very helpful, because reading just the first page or two of a novel is enough to determine whether an author can write (most cannot). Then there are books such as Norman Spinrad’s The Druid King which I flung yesterday a quarter of the way into it. Spinrad — in spite of his reputation — has the writing style of an amateur, and the book reads as though it was dashed off in a hurry, with all the characters saying whatever obvious thing serves as exposition.

Finding nonfiction books is easy. I don’t have time to read all the things that I want to read. But finding fiction is hard work and leads to disappointment more often than not.

John Twelve Hawks, please come home.

Update: A day after I wrote this, the Amazon rating average has dropped to 2.9. Clearly the buzz is turning against Stephenson. Hilarious.

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