Getting serious about genre

Times Staff Writer

Michael CHABON, the author of novels such as the exuberant, Pulitzer-winning "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" and "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," an alternate-universe story that recently won the Nebula Award, has long harbored a passion: to make the literary world safe for genre fiction, and to expand the notion of what a serious work of fiction can be. "Entertainment has a bad name," begins the opening essay of his new collection "Maps and Legends," called "Trickster in a Suit of Lights." "Serious people learn to mistrust and even revile it. The word wears spandex, pasties, a leisure suit studded with blinking lights."

We spoke to Chabon, 45, from his home in Berkeley about his crusade to save comics, science fiction, fantasy, horror and detective fiction from condescension.

Let's start with some of the pulp or genre writers who have spoken to you over the years and perhaps inspired your own books.

There are so many. Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Ross Thomas, Ursula K. Le Guin, Frank Herbert, Michael Moorcock, Ray Bradbury, Jack Kirby, Steve Gerber, Alan Moore. And there are a whole list of borderland writers -- John Crowley, Jorge Luis Borges, Stephen Millhauser, Thomas Pynchon -- writers who can dwell between worlds.

Where did this bias against work created for a popular audience come from?

In all fairness, it came from the fact that the vast preponderance of art created for a mass audience is crap. It's impossible to ignore that. But the vast preponderance of work written as literary art is high-toned crap. The proportion may settle down in the neighborhood of 90/10 -- Sturgeon's Law said that 90% of everything is crud.

Let's talk about this in a specific instance -- Cormac McCarthy's novel "The Road" and its reception.

I thought it was an excellent novel. The least interesting thing to me as a reader was that it was science fiction. It presented a very pure example of post-apocalyptic literature, pared down to the essentials of a post-apocalyptic vision. But it's nothing that anybody reading science fiction over the last 60 or 70 years hasn't seen done many, many times before -- maybe not by writers of McCarthy's caliber.

In terms of the vision it was presenting, it was notable only for the intense, McCarthy severity.

In fact, I responded to it much more as a work of horror fiction. But the response you saw out there generally was the sort of oh-my-God isn't this incredible, Cormac McCarthy has written a science fiction novel! Sometimes a little bit of a panic sets in, where critics aren't sure what to do about it or say about it.

And when this happens, when a writer of unassailable literary reputation, like McCarthy, does produce a work of genre fiction, under his own name, unlike say John Banville, the critical machine prints out and issues a pass to a writer: "This isn't science fiction, because it was written by Cormac McCarthy." Or, "We think all science fiction is bad, unless it's written by a Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy."

In some ways the book may be closer to a work of prophecy, biblical prophecy, than anything else, and that's what we're responding to.

Ultimately with any great work of art, whether it was written by a Ray Bradbury or a Philip K. Dick or Cormac McCarthy, it's really the intensity with which it's been imagined and been brought into language.

The conventional argument is that the literary writer's work is well imagined, well written, and the genre author can't write. Every so often a writer hacks and crawls out of the brambles of genre. Somebody like Philip K. Dick clearly began in the pulps, writing mass commercial fiction.

Almost by dint of the passion of his fans, and the intensity of his vision, and all of that stuff, eventually he ends up getting canonized in Library of America. But those are much more the exceptions.

Dick made that transition in a big way. He had intelligence, vision and so on -- without ever becoming what you'd traditionally call a good writer.

He wrote much too quickly, there's no doubt about that. The pressure to write quickly is not good for any writer, no matter how gifted and intelligent, and it wasn't good for him.

I wonder if Philip Pullman's tendency to fall between categories with the "His Dark Materials" books -- they're kind of kids books, kind of for adults, kind of fantasy, kind of literary -- made it hard for the movie of "The Golden Compass" to find an audience.

Maybe, but maybe it's that the movie wasn't that great. To me that's what makes a writer interesting: When a writer is sort of like a ball bearing caught between the magnetic fields, all positioned just right so the ball bearing floats in the air, wobbling because it's in this highly excited position, barely holding its place. You see that in Pullman at his best.

Pullman sort of, in a sense, may come back to the idea of pressure to publish frequently. He's written other good books, for young readers, but he was on a more traditional publishing schedule, turning out books very regularly, in series.

But then he hit "The Golden Compass" and he slowed down and took his time.

Not to say that great works of literature haven't been written in very brief periods of time. Sometimes the words come tumbling out in this white heat of composition. It's not a reliable indicator, but sometimes it's what separates a routine or genre writer from one we see as "a true artist."

I wonder if national origins have a role in this. This country was founded by Puritans, who considered any kind of aesthetic pleasure to be idolatry. While Britain evolved out of a tradition of myths and legends and folk tales, which you can see in Tolkien and elsewhere.

They may be less eager to make those kinds of distinctions and keep them rigid. When I look at the British pop charts, for example, I'm always surprised at the British Top 40 and what a strange mixture of incredibly refined and edgy kinds of taste are represented there alongside pap and stuff that you would never see here. It's mixed together in this wonderful jumble that seems a lot less stratified. Some of that same sensibility might be reflected in literature as well.

It's certainly true in other countries. It's not an accident that we had the auteur theory developing in France: Those critics were watching Hitchcock films and John Ford films and Howard Hawks films and westerns and crime films and decided that they were clearly great works of art. H.P. Lovecraft too was acclaimed as a great American writer in France much sooner than here. When the Library of America included Lovecraft, there were a lot of people here who were smirking about it.

It seems like behind your essays is this larger argument about childhood, which you seem to think our culture has misunderstood in some ways.

Childhood is a subject I talk about a lot. I haven't thought it through to know how much it has to do with what I'm saying about fiction and the short story. But there is unquestionably a connection for me between the maps I encountered as a young reader -- the endpaper maps -- and the maps I created for himself, both literally drew myself, of imaginary lands I was trying to bring into existence, and the internal maps I was creating of the world that I lived in, the world that I played in -- the neighborhood. . . . Where the mean dogs were, where the mean dads were, where the bad kids hung out. All of that was intimately connected in my mind with what I was reading.

I don't think there's any question that kids aren't sent out to play with the same kind of freedom anymore, at least not where I live. I would say, "Bye, Mom," and I'd be gone all day long. It felt like such a porous boundary, between my physical world, in which I enacted my imaginary games, and the world I was reading about in the books I loved. They fed each other. What happens when you take out one huge part of that -- what happens to kids' imaginations?

And when you talk about crossing boundaries, seamlessly flipping from the imaginary to the real and back again, that's what I'm looking at with the writers I love.

In some ways the traditional highbrow argument can seem rather silly: "If we don't privilege and protect certain kind of work, it'll all be 'American Idol' all the time." That the forces of commercial culture will swamp all the good stuff.

Unquestionably -- it's not just futile, it's ultimately destructive to try to fence things in that way. Robert Frost said, "Something there is that does not love a wall."

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scott.timberg@latimes.com

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