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Michael Chabon – Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands

January 9, 2010

Chabon’s impassioned defense of genre entertainment first preaches to the choir, then offers it a few classic songs to try.

The debate over whether genre merits serious critical attention and appreciation is an old one, and I’m no longer sure who is giving much heed to those people who still answer “no.”  As a result, the early essays in the collection, in which Chabon tries to reassure the reader that pleasure is not a dirty word, come off as overly vehement.  Yes, it’s annoying that every time a mainstream litfic author ventures into (usually quite well-worn) genre territory, they are unduly praised, while the genre elements are either “transcended” by the luminary’s talent or “elevated” to the level of “parable” — but the people likely to read this collection already know how mockworthy such reviews are.  We are coming to a point when genre partisans (and I include myself) must realize that they have become the behemoth.  In recent years, as has been pointed out endlessly, many of the best-selling books (Harry Potter, the Twilight Saga, The DaVinci Code and the other ones, and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, along with quieter presences like Ken Follett and James Patterson), blockbuster movies (just this year: New Moon, Avatar, Star Trek, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Sherlock Holmes, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen), and most-watched TV series (NCIS [this is really the top non-American Idol show in the country? OK.], CSI, Lost, The Mentalist, Battlestar Galactica, True Blood, etc.) have been…genre.  At a certain point, might at least bears the implication of right.  I’m not sure that genre needs defending these days as much as it needs interrogation (see, for instance and just for starters, the extremely objectionable racial politics of Avatar and the newest Transformers).

Where Maps and Legends picks up, then, is in its entries devoted to specific writers or works, which are compelling and detailed without giving away so much as to ruin the enticement.  In particular, I think Chabon may have made me at least respect Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a book I loathed reading.  He may even have convinced me to try Blood Meridian.

If there’s a weakness of the suggestions contained in this middle section of the book, it’s that Chabon’s greatest-hits list is a parade of white dudes.  Chabon is also suspiciously nostalgic for his childhood in the ostensibly then-integrated young city of Columbia, Maryland; I found myself wondering how an African-American contemporary of Chabon’s living in the same place (which sounds like a well-meaning white liberals’ experiment in constructed community) would have recalled it during that time.  My experience of “reading and writing along the borderlands” has been marked genre’s fraught relationship writers (and readers) from marginalized groups, who don’t, so to speak, already own the mainland.  For that reason, Chabon’s final essays, detailing how his Judaism has affected his career as a storyteller, were particularly welcome.  The final entry, “Golems I Have Known, or, Why My Elder Son’s Middle Name is Napoleon,” a performance piece in print, is not to be missed.

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