If you plotted it on a graph, our ascription of heroism to our favorite novelists would, no doubt, describe a diagonal line going sharply down after the funeral of Victor Hugo in 1885. Two million people showed up for that – the largest for any public figure in French history.
It wasn't long before such public admiration for novelists began to plunge. Soon, Cocteau was telling us, immortally, that "Victor Hugo is a madman who thinks he is Victor Hugo."
On our shores, Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald had one kind of fame (in Fitzgerald's case, posthumously). By the time of Vidal, Mailer, Updike, Baldwin and Mary McCarthy, they had a lesser kind but still very much in the "hero" neighborhood.
Not now. We expect our novelists to be virtual traveling salesmen saying "yes" as often as possible to television, making bookstore and radio appearances in Seattle, Portland and the better New England seaports. Oprah, of course, could whip up a viewership Victor Hugo might have found adequate but, in general, our perception of authorial heroism has long since taken the plunge.
What we have here are two miscellanies of essays and the like that prove neatly that we may have packed authorial heroism away in mothballs too soon.
Granted, such cultural lionization seems impossible in the age of the Internet (could Mailer have survived the Age of the Blog in complete sanity? I'd lay odds he'd have read them by the ton, especially if he were in them).
But let's offer up Nicholson Baker and Neal Stephenson – a pair of opposites if ever there was one – as authentic culture heroes in the current literary age.
Or, at least the current age of surviving literature.
Baker possesses a post-Updikean sensibility so acute and so fine-point that so many of his fictions and essays not only seem proto-blogs but almost in the neighborhood of pre-tweets on some higher, larger version of literacy altogether.
Read Baker's "A Box of Matches" sometime to see how concentrated and misleadingly "trival" Baker can be.
Or, in this book, "How I Met My Wife," a two-page sliver of anecdote that will, despite its abundant improvisational charm, resist most of your efforts to think of it as something larger. ("On our first date, she wore a wonderful cashmere coat that she had bought at a thrift store. It had a shawl collar made of lambswool that went with her soft thoughtful lips. I tried to get her to shoe-ski on the thin layer of snow on the sidewalk in front of the administration but she didn't want to.")
That, however, should delude no one about the heroism Baker may possess. While he is known to most – if at all – as the author of the utterly outrageous and riotous sexual fantasies "Vox" (Monica L. famously gave a copy to Bill C.) and "House of Holes," he is also an openly committed pacifist whose book "Human Smoke" about the pacifist case against World War II enraged many.
In "Why I"m a Pacifist" here, he writes about Katha Pollitt's expressing rage in The Nation at "Human Smoke." "Pollitt's displeasure hurt, as bad reviews from thoughtful readers generally do. But I still think the pacifists of World War II were right. In fact, the more I learn about the war, the more I understand that the pacifists were the only ones, during a time of catastrophic violence, who repeatedly put forth proposals that had any chance of saving a threatened people."
One can snort and hoot at locomotive volume at such a contention but you cannot deny the courage of the writer.
When you add that this is also the unabashed extremist and print partisan who took on libraries over their Alexandrian plans to wipe out their newspaper files (see his book "Double Fold"), you are dealing with a writer who is, in a way that our world isn't completely capable of dealing with, made of heroic stuff indeed. Agree or not, Baker is singular.
In this collection of essays, things can be deceptively slight (no writer of contemporary prose is more happily – or more artfully – minimal except for Lydia Davis) and almost perversely personal (one single-page piece is called "Writing Wearing Earplugs." "Everything becomes 20 feet farther away than it really is. The chirpy, bashing, jingling, cash drawer of a world is out of reach and therefore more precious. You must have a good seal.")
But he also extols "The Charms of Wikipedia," David Remnick and Daniel Defoe. His four-page piece on Debussy's "La Mer" (he was a bassoon student at Rochester's Eastman School of Music) is one of the most poetic pieces of music criticism I have recently read – a sublime Debussyan prelude in autobiographical prose.
If only more of the literary world worked the way Baker does.
Surely his living polar opposite among American writers would be the similarly self-created Neal Stephenson, a maximalist author of Brobdingnagian texts of ferocious erudition and fanstastic invention. The books in his Baroque Cycle – "Quicksilver," "The Confusion," "The System of the World" – could, in a pile, provide a door-stopper for any bank vault door. "In the Beginning…Was the Command Line" from 1999 is thought to be one of the pivotal and prophetic texts on the cyber-world to come ever-so-shortly.
Here, too, is a writer who can be vehemently and eccentrically personal (he likes to move around when writing he tells us). But then here, also, is a writer for whom thinking BIG is almost effortless, as in his rather neat forumlation that writers can be divided up into Dante writers and Beowulf writers. That is professional writers who court and are supported by literary, social and political apparatuses and those who tell stories to the heirs of "lots and lots of intoxicated Frisians sitting around the fire wanting to hear a yarn."
Stephenson is pleased as can be that he has never taken a writing class in his life. At writers' conferences, organizers deadpan "ah yes, you're the one who's going to bring in our males 18-32." And sure enough when they all get to the venue "there were the males 18-32 looking quite out of place compared to the literary festival crowd."
He saw in David Foster Wallace a fellow product of "the Midwestern American College Town" which leads him to introduce Wallace's book about infinity "Everything and More" with a consideration of MACT culture. He admits never meeting Wallace but he sees across vast genre differences their similarly weighty works and finds Wallace "one of the other smart kids trying to explain some cool stuff."
Their kinship is a culture that teaches "you can reach out to other minds through that medium of words and make a connection…[It's a] way of saying here is something cool that I want to share with you for no reason other than making the spark jump between minds.…If that is how you have been raised, then to explain anything to anyone is a pleasure."
And, therefore, heroic work in our age.
Jeff Simon is the Arts and Books Editor of The News.
The Way the World Works: Essays
By Nicholson Baker
Simon and Schuster
316 pages, $25
Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writings
By Neal Stephenson326 pages, $25.99