Neal Stephenson on "Beowulf" writers versus "Dante" writers

While I'm finishing up this week's Reading Versus Watching column, go read the second question in this interview with Neal Stephenson conducted by SlashDot. In it he talks about the traditional division between popular ("Beowulf") writers and literary ("Dante") writers, and towards the end mentions how they seem to be converging these days.

Of course, what Neal Stephenson doesn't mention is the fascinating flipside of the situation as he outlines it, which is that while fans of Dante fiction, the high culture taste makers also known as literate readers (ourselves included) don't pay much attention to the stuff readers of Beowulf fiction like, it's even more telling that Beowulf readers don't pay any attention to the stuff that Dante readers like. I mean, I like Neil Gaiman as much as the next guy, but he's hardly of the same caliber as, say, David Foster Wallace or Colson Whitehead. But you'll never see Wallace or Whitehead swarmed with 18 to 32 year old males who want their autograph. I'd be willing to bet that not as many of their fans are overweight computer programmers willing to shell out fifteen hundred bucks on a leather trenchcoat so that they can look like Neo from The Matrix, only to shoot the whole project in the foot by capping off the look with a pair of ten dollar faux leather velcro sneakers, or worse, sandals, that their mom bought them at payless when they were fifteen. Which is to say that as much as we like the idea that there's no division between patrons of "high" and "low" culture, in modern day America, the fact of the matter is high culture has become valued by bohemians with refined tastes whereas the patrons of "low" culture are a bunch of overfed hayseeds. What's interesting in this is that all of a sudden good taste is, and has been for some time, disconnected from socio-economic status in America, giving the lie to many Marxist culture studies analyses imported from Europe. I mean, alright, I'm generalizing, but it seems to me that we've reached a cultural moment where it is no longer sufficient to either view the state of things as a polar spectrum and it's also no longer good enough to collapse the one end into the other and say it's all the same thing. There are differences here, and they are important, and they need more teasing out than these simple sorts of analyses can offer is, I think, the point. --J F Quackenbush