On Backhanded Compliments

A review of Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands

I was given this book as a rather spontaneous gift by someone who knew that I liked writing and tended to align myself without too much shame with the ever-growing armies of geekdom. Throughout my life I have been gifted several books from people — usually my mother — who don’t exactly know what they are getting me into. There was The Physics of Immortality by Frank J. Tipler, which I suspect mom hoped, based on the subtitle, might turn me back on to the concept of God. It didn’t exactly, but it did unleash upon my high school mind a whole set of wild, long-thinking ideas that have come to dominate my adult morality and theology. I don’t know what she was thinking when she got me Robert Anton Wilson’s Quantum Psychology next Christmas, which of course led me to the venerable Cosmic Trigger and from there to the odd world of psychedelic literature, the occult, and joke religions. It is a careless thing to give someone a book you have not read yourself, and only time will tell what effects this one will have.

Michael Chabon is a great writer of literature. His phrases and thoughts are finely crafted indeed, and I can only hope to grasp the English language as deftly as he does in these essays. This book has the kind of writing that makes you smarter, that expands your vocabulary and understanding of culture. I smiled and chuckled all throughout at the cleverness of the ironies described or the appropriateness of the metaphors used. Yes, sometimes, most of the time really, his sentences were too long, fattened in the middle regions by too much of a good thing. Chabon is so good at stringing together delicious clauses and delectable phrases that by the end of the sentence we have forgotten what he was talking about. I shouldn’t be too hard on him; it is an easy habit to get into without a very particular kind of editor there shooting you down. And anyways, Chabon won the Pulitzer! Who am I, a lowly reader, to criticize? In fact it is probably my failure here, not his: my failure of a short attention span brought on, surely, by too much TV and Internet and video games and never having a real hard ass for an English teacher. Right?

Like all great writers of literature, it is obvious that Chabon absolutely adores being a great writer of literature, and the scent of this fact hangs over the book like a too strong perfume. One of the ongoing subjects of the essays is the relationship between genre fiction and, ahem, serious literary fiction. Chabon claims to have grown up loving mystery, horror, sci-fi and comics, only to discover, once out of his teens, that these sorts of fiction and their traditions are rightfully looked down upon by everyone who is anyone, really, and certainly by everyone you need worry about if you plan on becoming a Great Writer of Literature. Giving up Martian canals for Pittsburgh summers is, in the mythology of this book, a Fall with a capital F.

So Chabon reminisces and basks warmly, and several times makes the start of arguments or apologies regarding the whole genre-literature divide. More than once I thought, “At last! A widely respected, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist is going to come out and defend sci-fi and the rest!” But no, though the blurbs on the back seem to remember it otherwise, Chabon can never actually bring himself to denounce the characterization of genre fiction as something categorically less worthy. He illuminates the sneering and elitism by the “literary world,” and just when you think he is about to scold them (his peers), he instead pirouettes into marveling at the idealism of his youth or ducks behind a cardboard shield of famous names. Worst of all, he does all this with the shit-eating grin of someone who honestly thinks he is doing you — and genre fiction — a favor.

To Chabon’s credit, the whole book is, supposedly, about works that straddle the line, be it clear or blurry, between the wilds of genre and the hallowed streets of serious literature. And these works interest me, they do. But his very metaphor of ‘borderlands’ and his almost-defense (for even these he can’t seem to outright endorse) of these tamed and cleaner-shaven savages who have been allowed to join civilization — all it does is make us sure that the border distinction, whatever its faults, is something real.

Chabon has, along with his Pulitzer, won several very prestigious sci-fi/fantasy awards for one of his novels, but he can’t fool me. Putting spurious ideas in air quotes is not refuting them. If Chabon won’t come down for one side here, then I will. I think “great literature” as an institution is total bunk, and filled with some of the most boring and useless pieces of writing ever printed. If allowed to define it (and I relish the opportunity), I would call a literary work of “serious fiction” one that tells a compelling story without having to resort to engaging the imagination. I have always felt this way, I’m afraid, and have been grumbling about it in the back of English classes all the way back to the days when they were having us read dreadfully depressing winners of the Newbery Medal. As I write this I am starting to suspect that Chabon’s book has only served to further polarize and entrench my position on the matter.

Maybe it is because I have never felt any meaningful existential angst (another gift from my mother, again unintentional). Maybe it is because I’ve never been able to shake the belief that everything I really need to know about how to be good in this crazy and mixed-up world could be learned from Spider-Man. Maybe it is because my childhood obsession with the future and the fantastical has never really waned, and now powers a passion for development, democracy, and technology. Maybe I’m just not one of those “literary” types. Whatever the reason, I have found the “classics” an entirely forgettable bunch, from Moby Dick to Great Gatsby, from Great Expectations to Catcher in the Rye. In that way, I guess I’m not Chabon’s target audience.

Maps and Legends is a great book if you are interested in half-winking analysis of His Dark Materials, Sherlock Holmes and The Road, or in half-baked memoirs of Jewish nostalgia and making it as a writer, or in the finest of prose. Honestly it was a struggle to finish, but I’m glad I did. So check it out, if you wish. I’ll be over here. Reading the fun stuff.

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