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Michael Chabon on genre fiction

Michael Chabon is the sort of writer I'd love to be - respected, acclaimed even, by the literary establishment, yet comfortable in the vernacular of genre fiction, his name proudly emblazoned in the credits of comic book movies. I suppose I should read one of his books one day - certainly The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay has been sitting on my bedside table for far too long, and I did enjoy the film of Wonder Boys.

In an essay he wrote for The New York Review of Books I was struck by this passage (emphases mine):

The truth was that I had come to a rough patch in my understanding of what I wanted my writing to be. I was in a state of confusion. Over the past four years I had been struggling to find a way to accommodate my taste for the genre fiction I had been reading with the greatest pleasure for the better part of my life - fantasy, horror, crime, and science fiction - to the way that I had come to feel about the English language, which was that it and I seemed to have something going. Something (on my side at least) much closer to deep, passionate, physical, and intellectual love than anything else I had ever experienced with a human up to that point. But when it came to the use of language, somehow, my verbal ambition and my ability felt hard to frame or fulfill within the context of traditional genre fiction. I had found some writers, such as J.G. Ballard, Italo Calvino, J.L. Borges, and Donald Barthelme, who wrote at the critical point of language, where vapor turns to starry plasma, and yet who worked, at least sometimes, in the terms and tropes of genre fiction. They all paid a price, however. The finer and more masterly their play with language, the less connected to the conventions of traditional, bourgeois narrative form - unified point of view, coherent causal sequence of events, linear structure, naturalistic presentation - their fiction seemed to become. Duly I had written my share of pseudo-Ballard, quasi-Calvino, and neo-Borges. I had fun doing it. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't stop preferring traditional, bourgeois narrative form.

I wanted to tell stories, the kind with set pieces and long descriptive passages, and "round" characters, and beginnings and middles and ends. And I wanted to instil - or rather I didn't want to lose - that quality, inherent in the best science fiction, which was sometimes called "the sense of wonder." If my subject matter couldn't do it - if I wasn't writing about people who sailed through neutron stars or harnessed suns together - then it was going to fall to my sentences themselves to open up the heads of my readers and decant into them enough crackling plasma to light up the eye sockets for a week.

But I didn't want to write science fiction, or a version of science fiction, some kind of pierced-and-tattooed, doctorate-holding, ironical stepchild of science fiction. I wanted to write something with reach. Welty and Faulkner started and ended in small towns in Mississippi but somehow managed to plant flags at the end of time and in the minds of readers around the world. A good science fiction novel appeared to have an infinite reach - it could take you to the place where the universe bent back on itself - but somehow, in the end, it ended up being the shared passion of just you and that guy at the Record Graveyard on Forbes Avenue who was really into Hawkwind.

I wasn't considering any actual, numerical readership here - I wasn't so bold. Rather I was thinking about the set of axioms that speculative fiction assumed, and how it was a set that seemed to narrow and refine and program its audience, like a protein that coded for a certain suite of traits. Most science fiction seemed to be written for people who already liked science fiction; I wanted to write stories for anyone, anywhere, living at any time in the history of the world. (Twenty-one, I was twenty-one!)


Now, I don't have a fraction of Chabon's mastery of words, nor his talent for crafting stories, nor his dedication, nor his knowledge and appreciation for the classic and modern masters, nor his success. And I'm much older than the twenty one year old that Chabon looks back on. But there is something to his desire to meld the "pulpish" with the sophisticated (or pretentious if you prefer) that I relate and aspire to.

And yet, here I am expending a fair amount of energy writing not only science fiction, but also Star Trek fiction (the clogged drainpipe of a gutter genre), not only Trek fiction but Enterprise fan fiction (the least successful and most despised of the five on-screen incarnations... even by me), not telling stories "for anyone, everywhere, living at any time" but revelling in continuity porn and references only hardcore purveyors of geeky fandoms could discern.

I could tell myself that it's in the specific that one attains the universal... but that's pushing the argument through its membrane. Fact is: I'm a geek, scratching out feeble geekish writings for other geeks (whether these are of the Trek, SF, comic book or musical theatre variety). I love the fact that "serious" comic books like Dave McKean's Cages or Neil Gaiman's The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch get such acclaim, but couldn't even finish Cages. And I'd much rather produce works like Gaiman's remarkable run on Miracleman which, at least partly I suspect, because it deals with superheroes isn't anywhere nearly as recognised as his other works. So, no future bearer of literary establishment respectability I. That knowledge should be liberating but at best I feel ambiguous about it. Part of me distains pretentiousness and part of me revels in it.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 3, 2005 4:34 PM.

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