*Update at bottom of post*
I’m a fan of Michael Chabon. I’ve read several of his novels, and though only The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay struck me as having truly electric, transformative power, I have enjoyed all of them and loved some of them. So when I saw Maps and Legends, a book of his essays on reading and writing, I was more than willing to give it a whirl.
In his introductory essay, “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story,” Chabon establishes the argument he will trace in different ways in each essay through the rest of the book. He claims that entertainment has gotten a bad name — a huckster’s name, like a lounge singer in Vegas. Its original meaning, coming from the same root as intertwined, is the real essence of entertainment: a reciprocal, pleasurable relationship between writer and reader, bridging the gulf that separates us all, making a connection. Within that definition, why and how has the understanding evolved that only certain genres (for instance, the contemporary, plotless, quotidian, moment-of-truth revelatory story) are considered acceptable? A hundred years ago, our finest authors (Henry James, Edith Wharton, Faulkner, Poe, Conrad, Hawthorne, Melville, Graham Greene, etc) wrote ghost stories, adventure stories, spy novels, seafaring stories, science fiction, horror. They played with the conventions of literary fiction and with the conventions of genre: they wrote along the borderlands. And, Chabon argues, our most consistently interesting contemporary authors do the same, working in the spaces between the genres: A.S. Byatt, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Cormac McCarthy, Steven Millhauser, Jose Saramago.
Chabon uses this conceit — writing along the borderlands — to explore the work of several authors. He talks about the enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes, discusses several comic-book and graphic-novel authors, and openly wonders about tricksters and gods in the form of the wild and dark D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths. My own favorite essays (mostly because Chabon so thoroughly agreed with me) were the ones on M.R. James and Philip Pullman. I honestly think Chabon is the first person I’ve ever encountered who could so brilliantly articulate my own opinion on Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (essentially that the first installment was absolutely effing brilliant, the second was heavier-handed and disappointing, and the third was heartbreakingly prevented from being any good as a story by the author’s agenda. But Chabon says it better.) I also fully expected Chabon’s essays on his own writing to be a bit self-indulgent. In fact, they were wry, self-deprecating, and in the case of the essay on golems, both funny and touching.
This book was wonderful. I loved it in part because I happen to agree entirely with its premise: that the ghettoization of genre hurts literature. When people say “I hate mysteries/ horror/ science fiction/ fantasy/ sea stories,” I never say anything, but I wonder about “Murder in the Rue Morgue” and The Turn of the Screw and 1984 and Little, Big and Moby-Dick. As long as the writing is good and the story leads you by the hand and won’t let you go, why do you care where it’s shelved in the bookstore? But I also loved Chabon’s essays because they were well thought out and interesting. I think this selection would have something for any lover of reading. Pick it up and see for yourself.
*Edited to add:* It’s been bothering me ever since I published this that I didn’t remark on the main flaw of the book, which is that Chabon barely mentions, let alone eulogizes or analyzes, women. A.S. Byatt and Edith Wharton are given passing nods, but that’s all. Really? There’s so much he could have done in another chapter or two. Not only are there so many wonderful women genre writers working along the borderlands, like Octavia Butler and Connie Willis, but there are also prize-winning “mainstream” authors like Toni Morrison, whose Beloved is arguably a ghost story. There are also women working in graphic novels and comic books that he could have included. It’s a huge omission, and I thought it was worth mentioning that a literary world without women is not, and should not be, the norm.