Maps and Legends

maps and legends

*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.

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11 Responses to Maps and Legends

  1. Jes says:

    Thanks for the review – you’ve sold me on checking it out!

  2. Nymeth says:

    Yes! I absolutely loved this book too. Except for the essay on HDM, which made me cry a little inside :P

  3. Jenny says:

    Jes — I think you’ll like it. Well worth reading, especially if you like Chabon.

    Nymeth — I know! I know my pov on Pullman is not popular. But it did make me happy to see that A Famous Author shared it. :)

  4. litlove says:

    I had no idea he had written a book of essays and they sound wonderful. I’m interested by your edit, however. It’s a shame how many male critics do suffer from a sort of gender blindness. Educationally, we still expect women to follow men’s stories with no problem, but rarely invite men to follow women’s stories with the same expectations of quality and meaning.

  5. Jes says:

    Oh, that is a very good point about him not including any female authors. That’s appalling in this day & age, and I’d say it just makes him look bad except it perpetuates the sexism of the field. Disappointing.

    (BTW, I totally agree with you & Chabon on HDM – nice to see it’s not just me, and to have y’all explain why I loved the first book & felt so let down by the other 2.)

  6. Jenny says:

    Litlove — Well said, as usual. The male point of view is still the norm, while the female point of view is still the other, the second sex. Even I, a feminist, didn’t notice until I had finished the book that Chabon didn’t discuss any women. Easy to miss, but a serious problem in my opinion.

    Jes — It *is* disappointing about Chabon, though the essays he does include are great, as I said. And how lovely that you agree with me about Pullman! I was *so* disappointed by the second two books (esp the third) but have met almost no one else who feels that way. It must be our brilliant high school English classes. :)

  7. JaneGS says:

    I read the first part of Maps and Legends and enjoyed it, but got distracted and abandoned it when he dived into comicbookland, a place where I just can’t seem to go and enjoy myself. His Gentlemen of the Road is on my TBR shelf, and it looks good to me.

    Interesting point about his not addressing any female authors.

    Very interesting point about how to write about your own stuff.

  8. Jenny says:

    JaneGS — I have read quite a number of graphic novels, so I could relate a bit to the comic books, even though I hadn’t read them specifically. And I hope you didn’t miss the essays that came after those, on M.R. James and the rest. Gentlemen of the Road is up next for me, too!

  9. Frances says:

    Like Chabon also but did not know about this book. Will have it soon though. And loved litlove’s point about male expectations for reading. So true. But if the NEA and other studies are correct, few men are reading fiction anymore. Don’t know if I think this is really true but… I am sure that these suggestions of gender bias will inform my reading.

    New Chabon link you might enjoy:

  10. Jenny says:

    Frances — Thanks for the link! I loved it. I don’t know either whether it’s true that fewer men are reading fiction any longer. I hope not. What a loss, if so.

  11. avisannschild says:

    I saw this book in the bookstore and was intrigued by its title and cover. I’m glad to hear it’s good though I’m very disappointed to hear he doesn’t really discuss women writers! That’s the kind of thing I do notice and it does drive me crazy. However, I’m still curious about the book! I think I will probably agree with what he has to say about Pullman too! (I abandoned the third book — I wasn’t interested enough in the story to even care that I’d never find out what happens in the end.)

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