Why I am a Bad Correspondent


by Neal Stephenson

Writers who do not make themselves totally available to everyone, all the time, are frequently tagged with the "recluse" label. While I do not consider myself a recluse, I have found it necessary to place some limits on my direct interactions with individual readers. These limits most often come into play when people send me letters or e-mail, and also when I am invited to speak publicly. This document is a sort of form letter explaining why I am the way I am.

When I read a novel that I really like, I feel as if I am in direct, personal communication with the author. I feel as if the author and I are on the same wavelength mentally, that we have a lot in common with each other, and that we could have an interesting conversation, or even a friendship, if the circumstances permitted it. When the novel comes to an end, I feel a certain letdown, a loss of contact. It is natural to want to recapture that feeling by reading other works by the same author, or by corresponding with him/her directly.

All of this seems perfectly reasonable---I should know, since I have had these feelings myself! But it turns out to be a bad idea. To begin with, a novel has roughly the same relationship to a conversation with the author, as a movie does to the actors in it. A movie represents many person-years of work distilled into two hours, and so everything sounds and looks perfect. But if you have ever met a movie actor in person, you know that they are not quite as dazzling and witty (or as tall) as the figures they play in movies. This seems obvious but it always comes as a bit of a letdown anyway.

Likewise, a novel represents years of hard work distilled into a few hundred pages, with all (or at least most) of the bad ideas cut out and thrown away, and the good ideas polished and refined as much as possible. Interacting with an author in person is nothing like reading his novels. Just about everyone who gets an opportunity to meet with an author in person ends up feeling mildly let down, and in some cases, grievously disappointed.

Authors are participants in a kind of colloquy that joins together all literate persons, and so it seems only reasonable that they should from time to time stop writing fiction for a few hours or days, and attend public events, such as conventions, signings, panels, seminars, etc., where they should exchange ideas with other authors and with other members of society. Therefore, authors such as myself frequently receive invitations to do exactly that.

Letters or e-mail from readers, and invitations to speak in public, might seem like very different things. In fact they are points on a common continuum; they have more in common than is obvious at first. The e-mail message from the reader, and the invitation to speak at a conference, are both requests (in most cases, polite and absolutely reasonable requests) for the author to interact directly with readers.

Normally, my only interaction with readers is to go to a Fedex drop box every couple of years and throw in the manuscript of a completed novel. It seems reasonable enough to ask for a little bit more than that! After all, the time commitment is very small: a few minutes tapping out an e-mail message, or a day trip to a conference to speak.

For some authors, this works, but in my case, it doesn't. There is little to nothing that I can offer readers above and beyond what appears in my published writings. It follows that I should devote all my efforts to writing more material for publication, rather than spending a few minutes here, a day there, answering e-mails or going to conferences.

Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can't concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can't do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless.

The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent and why I very rarely accept speaking engagements. If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly. What replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time, and that will, with luck, be read by many people, there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons, and a few speeches given at various conferences.

That is not such a terrible outcome, but neither is it an especially good outcome. The quality of my e-mails and public speaking is, in my view, nowhere near that of my novels. So for me it comes down to the following choice: I can distribute material of bad-to-mediocre quality to a small number of people, or I can distribute material of higher quality to more people. But I can't do both; the first one obliterates the second.

Another factor in this choice is that writing fiction every day seems to be an essential component in my sustaining good mental health. If I get blocked from writing fiction, I rapidly become depressed, and extremely unpleasant to be around. As long as I keep writing it, though, I am fit to be around other people. So all of the incentives point in the direction of devoting all available hours to fiction writing.

I am not proud of the fact that some of my e-mail goes unanswered as a result. It is never my intention to be rude or to give well-meaning readers the cold shoulder. If I were a commercial best-seller, I would have enough money to hire a staff to look after my correspondence. As it is, my books are bought by enough people to provide me with a sort of middle-class lifestyle, but not enough to hire employees, and so I am faced with a stark choice between being a bad correspondent and being a good novelist. I am trying to be a good novelist, and hoping that people will forgive me for being a bad correspondent.