Michael Chabon on ‘writers who can dwell between worlds’
Scott Timberg is a good friend of the Hero Complex who writes insightfully about authors and literature for the Los Angeles Times. He recently interviewed Michael Chabon for a Q&A that appeared in the Sunday paper recently, but due to space considerations, it was edited down. Here is the full, “director’s cut” version.
Michael Chabon is well known as the author of novels such as the coming-of-age tale “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” the exuberant, Pulitzer-winning “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” and “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union,” an alternate-universe story that just came out in paperback and recently won the Nebula Award.
But Chabon has long harbored a related passion, which has run alongside and sometimes overlapped with his novels: to make the literary world safe for genre fiction and to expand the notion of what a serious work of fiction can be. “Entertainment has a bad name,” begins the book’s opening essay, “Trickster in a Suit of Lights.” “Serious people learn to mistrust and even revile it. The word wears spandex, pasties, a leisure suit studded with blinking lights.”
The pieces in “Maps and Legends” range far and wide, including one on Chabon’s hometown of Columbia, Md. (a planned community that reflects some of the writer’s concerns), and memoirish pieces that give the background to his novels.
The heart of the book, though, concerns his crusade to save comics, science fiction, fantasy, horror and detective fiction from condescension.
He wants to move past the ambivalence of the Moderns — whether novelists, poets or surrealist artists — who played with pop elements such as popular songs or comics but did so behind what Chabon calls “the line of irony.”
I spoke to Chabon from his home in Berkeley about a process by which sophisticated writers are kept in the genre ghetto and readers are scared away from novels and stories they might otherwise love.
Timberg: Let’s start with some of the pulp or genre writers who have spoken to you over the years and perhaps inspired your own books.
Chabon: There are so many. Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Ross Thomas, Ursula K. LeGuin, Frank Herbert, Michael Moorcock, Ray Bradbury, Jack Kirby, Steve Gerber, Alan Moore. And there is a whole list of borderland writers — John Crowley, Jorge Luis Borges, Steven Millhauser, Thomas Pynchon — writers who can dwell between worlds.
Timberg: Where did this bias against work created for a popular audience come from?
Chabon: In all fairness, it came from the fact that the vast preponderance of art created for a mass audience is crap. It’s impossible to ignore that. But the vast preponderance of work written as literary art is high-toned crap. The proportion may settle down in the neighborhood of 90/10 — Sturgeon’s law said that 90% of everything is crud. [Science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once said, “Ninety percent of SF [science fiction] is crud, but then 90% of everything is crud.”]
Timberg: Let’s talk about this in a specific instance — Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road” and its reception.
Chabon: I thought it was an excellent novel. The least interesting thing to me as a reader was that it was science fiction. It presented a very pure example of post-apocalyptic literature, pared down to the essentials of a post-apocalyptic vision. But it’s nothing that anybody reading science fiction over the last 60 or 70 years hasn’t seen done many, many times before — maybe not by writers of McCarthy’s caliber. In terms of the vision it was presenting, it was notable only for the intense, McCarthy severity.
In fact, I responded to it much more as a work of horror fiction. But the response you saw, out there generally, was the sort of, “Oh-my-God isn’t this incredible, Cormac McCarthy has written a science-fiction novel!” Sometimes a little bit of a panic sets in, where critics aren’t sure what to do about it or say about it. And when this happens, when a writer of unassailable literary reputation, like McCarthy, does produce a work of genre fiction, under his own name, unlike say John Banville, the critical machine prints out and issues a pass to a writer: “This isn’t science fiction, because it was written by Cormac McCarthy.” Or, “We think all science fiction is bad, unless it’s written by a Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy.”
In some ways, the book may be closer to a work of prophecy, biblical prophecy, than anything else, and that’s what we’re responding to. Ultimately, with any great work of art, whether it was written by a Ray Bradbury or a Philip K. Dick or Cormac McCarthy, it’s really the intensity with which it’s been imagined and been brought into language.
Timberg: The conventional argument is that the literary writer’s work is well imagined, well written, and the genre author can’t write. How often does a writer move to the other?
Chabon: Every so often, a writer hacks and crawls out of the brambles of genre. Somebody like Philip K. Dick clearly began in the pulps, writing mass commercial fiction. Almost by dint of the passion of his fans, and the intensity of his vision and all of that stuff, eventually ends up getting canonized in Library of America. But those are much more the exceptions.
Those distinctions are usually made in advance, and every time someone comes along who seems to be an exception to the rule, the escape clause is invoked, and we pull him or her out of competition: “That doesn’t count.”
Timberg: Dick made that transition in a big way. He had intelligence, vision and so on — without ever becoming what you’d traditionally call a good writer.
Chabon: He wrote much too quickly, there’s no doubt about that. The pressure to write quickly is not good for any writer, no matter how gifted and intelligent, and it wasn’t good for him.
Timberg: I wonder if Philip Pullman’s tendency to fall between categories with the “His Dark Materials” books — they’re kind of kids’ books, kind of for adults, kind of fantasy, kind of literary — made it hard for the movie of “The Golden Compass” to find an audience.
Chabon: Maybe, but maybe it’s that the movie wasn’t that great. To me, that’s what makes a writer interesting: When a writer is sort of like a ball bearing caught between the magnetic fields, all positioned just right so the ball bearing floats in the air, wobbling because it’s in this highly excited position, barely holding its place. You see that in Pullman at his best.
Pullman sort of, in a sense, may come back to the idea of pressure to publish frequently. He’s written other good books, for young readers, but he was on a more traditional publishing schedule, turning out books very regularly, in series.
But then he hit “The Golden Compass” and he slowed down and took his time.
Not to say that great works of literature haven’t been written in very brief period of time. Sometimes the words come tumbling out in this white heat of composition. It’s not a reliable indicator, but sometimes it’s what separates a routine or genre writer from one we see as “a true artist.”
Timberg: I wonder if national origins have a role in this. This country was founded by Puritans, who considered any kind of aesthetic pleasure to be idolatry. While Britain evolved out of a tradition of myths and legends and folk tales, which you can see in Tolkien and elsewhere. Do you think the Brits have as bold a line as we do, between “serious” work and genre fiction?
Chabon: They may be less eager to make those kinds of distinctions and keep them rigid. When I look at the British pop charts, for example, I’m always surprised at the British top 40 and what a strange mixture of incredibly refined and edgy kinds of taste are represented there alongside pap and stuff that would never be seen here. It’s mixed together in this wonderful jumble that seems a lot less stratified. Some of that same sensibility might be reflected in literature as well.
It’s certainly true in other countries. It’s not an accident that we had the auteur theory developing in France: Those critics were watching Hitchcock films and John Ford films and Howard Hawks films and westerns and crime films and decided that they were clearly great works of art. H.P. Lovecraft, too, was acclaimed as a great American writer in France much sooner than here. When the Library of America included Lovecraft, there were a lot of people here who were smirking about it.
Timberg: It seems like behind your essays is this larger argument about childhood, which you seem to think our culture has misunderstood in some ways.
Chabon: I think you could find that argument in some of the pieces in “Maps and Legends.” Childhood is a subject I talk about a lot. I haven’t thought it through to know how much it has to do with what I’m saying about fiction and the short story.
But there is unquestionably a connection for me between the maps I encountered as a young reader — the endpaper maps — and the maps I created for himself, both literally drew myself, of imaginary lands trying to bring into existence, and the internal maps I was creating of the world that I lived in, the world that I played in — the neighborhood … where the mean dogs were, where the mean dads were, where the bad kids hung out. All of that was intimately connected in my mind with what I was reading.
I don’t think there’s any question that kids aren’t sent out to play with the same kind of freedom anymore, at least not where I live. I would say, “Bye, Mom,” and I’d be gone all day long. It felt like such a porous boundary between my physical world, in which I enacted my imaginary games, and the world I was reading about in the books I loved. They fed each other. What happens when you take out one huge part of that — what happens to kids’ imaginations?
And when you talk about crossing boundaries, seamlessly flipping from the imaginary to the real and back again, that’s what I’m looking at with the writers I love.
Timberg: Your novels — and this collection — seem very layered, with Norse mythology, Jewish fables, ’80s American comics, Sherlock Holmes and so on all part of it.
Chabon: Tolkien’s “Cauldron of Story” is one of my central ways of thinking about what I do. If you accept this notion, which Tolkien talks about in “Tree and Leaf,” then you look at writers coming of age with me, what you see is a willingness to recognize that the “Cauldon of Story” includes not only recognizably literary elements, and root elements like folk tale and fairy tale and Bible stories which have always been acknowledged as part of the writers tool kit, but also this other material, which in turn is just further reflections and emanations of these fundamental kinds of stories.
When I’m 7 years old and reading Batman and Fantastic Four, I’m reading Greek myths and Norse myths, and I’m finding the mighty Thor in the pages of Marvel Comics, and it’s all just completely connected in my mind. It was all coming from the same place, as far as I was concerned.
Timberg: Seeing it that way makes the traditional highbrow argument seem rather silly. I think that would go, “If we don’t privilege and protect certain kind of work, it’ll all be ‘American Idol’ all the time.” That the forces of commercial culture will swamp all the good stuff.
Chabon: Unquestionably — it’s not just futile, it’s ultimately destructive to try to fence things in that way. Robert Frost said, “Something there is that does not love a wall.”
EXTRA: Later, Timberg asked Chabon what the consequences were of this bias against genre, and the author responded via e-mail with this:
I think the worst consequences are:
1) Wonderful, serious, sophisticated writers who would appeal to a broader audience get stuck in the genre ghettos where “mainstream” readers seldom venture.
2) Writers of “mainstream” fiction whose taste as readers runs to genre fiction (SF, horror) feel shy or hesitant about attempting to write what they love, for fear of being dismissed or, perhaps, perceived as dabbling.
3) The range and depth of literary criticism is narrowed and reduced; after nearly 50 years, people are still talking about Kingsley Amis’ “New Maps of Hell” as if there were something remarkable in a “serious” critic writing about [science fiction].
4) Less fun is had.
Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez\Associated Press