Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Give me a break

So a lot of the authors I enjoy most straddle the lines between what some might consider genre and what some might consider literary. Those who still need sharp dividing lines to organize their thoughts would probably put most of it within fantasy (while those who still only enjoy the types of fantasy I read when I was 12 probably wouldn't want what I read to be polluting their narrow confines of the genre). But I'm aware of the critical approaches to this literature that I enjoy, aware of academic thought about them. I like to defend the literary side of things, that there isn't nearly so much an anti-fantastic/speculative sentiment as some people within the genre like to claim--it seems especially those who think fantasy is only this narrow heroic segment who like to imagine vast forces of literary establishment arrayed against them while they're among the few brave defenders of a nobler sort of reading. Not at all, I say. Yes, there was a sharp divide back in the 60s...and one could argue that much of the writing at the time merited this divide. But the critical analysis of even those works and the ways the fantastic and speculative constantly push against the boundaries means that this silly sentiment of small minds has faded greatly today. I was allowed, even encouraged, by very literary professors to do my undergrad thesis on fantasy. It isn't the fantastic and speculative that draws a stigma, but a certain type of unaware writing that's intentionally divorced from anything intellectual. At least so I would argue.

But then...

I come across this. It's a review in Slate Magazine of Michael Chabon's new book. The tagline that appears on Slate's main page is "Michael Chabon's Tiresome Obsession With Genre Fiction," and the review begins "Michael Chabon has spent considerable energy trying to drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it." This is a review (mostly) in praise of the book. Is she even aware of the many writers who destroy such a ridiculous statement? Writers generally considered mainstream (and serious) who borrow genre elements (like Chabon, or since I'm currently reading it, books like The Time Traveler's Wife)? Writers identified as speculative who treat it as very serious literature (and do so successfully)?

I guess every once in a while I need to be reminded that there really are still small-minded people out there who cling to ridiculous ideas about sharp dividing lines around what they read and fetters of a narrow sense of what serious literature can be.

7 comments:

Fred said...

That's just beyond ridiculous. And yet, somehow, she condescends to give the book a positive review. Imagine what that Chabon fella could do if he turned his attention towards "serious" fiction!

Lion said...

... huh. I read through the review and didn't find it all that ugly or simple-minded. Her phrase that serious literature left genre fiction for dead looks more like an admission of guilt than a condemnation to me, but I could be misreading.

She certainly allows for the genre's use as a literary tool--yearns for it, in fact, as you seem to. She doesn't pan his romance because it's a romance, she pans it because she finds it bad writing. Her comment that the fantasy genre expands for Chabon's imagination is probably wrong-headed, but it arrives at the same conclusion you do.

I guess I'm scratching my head at what's so "grr"-worthy of this review in particular.

Daniel Ausema said...

That's certainly not the impression I got from the review, Lion, but it's a charitable one that I'm willing to go back and check out later when I get a chance. And to be fair, the tagline from Slate's main page may not have been written by her but by the editors. But it certainly sets up the reading that I gave it (_"tiresome"_ etc.).

Thanks for stopping by, Fred. I just got my copy of Kaleidotrope in the mail today. Condescending--yes, that's the way I read the review. At best.

Fred said...

Her opening could be read as tongue-in-cheek, but further on, when she writes, "With The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon has finally made the only use of genre fiction that a talented writer should..." -- well, I think that's what gave me pause. What I got from reading it was this:

- Chabon has spent a lot of energy praising genre fiction as serious literature.
- His own attempts, in Franklin's estimation, haven't been very good.
- Chabon's praise is probably misguided and isn't it time he admitted that?
- Yet, despite that, he's written an okay book.

Having not read any other reviews by Franklin, I'm maybe willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. More so, probably, then when I first read this review yesterday evening. Condescension towards genre fiction is nothing new; it's just usually handled more subtly than talk of shallow graves and well deserved deaths.

Glad you got your copies of the zine, Daniel. Thanks again for the great story!

franQ said...

Hearing all this talk of the new Chabon release makes me a little sad…

A year ago, I would have been thrilled and probably obtained an advanced reading copy. He’s been my “favorite” author since I first read his debut novel THE MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH back in the early 90s.

But I can no longer support the work of an author who has no regard for the story and characters that put him on the literary map.

In case you haven’t heard, there’s a film version of MOP coming out later this year… Written and directed by the guy who brought us DODGEBALL, in which he’s CHANGED 85% of Chabon’s original story.

And the sad part is… Michael Chabon himself APPROVED of the script! WHY would he do this? I can only think of one possible answer: $$

If you are a Chabon fan, esp MOP, I suggest you do NOT see this movie. You will be sadly disappointed at the COMPLETE removal of the gay character, Arthur Lecomte, and the fabrication of a romantic love triangle between Art Bechstein, Jane Bellwether, and a bi-sexual Cleveland Arning. And really, what is MOP without the presence of Phlox Lombardi? Alas, she’s barely in it.

Daniel Ausema said...

Fred, yeah that's a good breakdown of the review as I read it. And I've enjoyed the zine (as you can see in my other post).

Franq, thanks for stopping by. I never read that book, so I have no opinion either way on the movie. I see so few movies, so I likely won't go see this either, but I imagine I'll probably continue to check some of his books out from the library.

Fred said...

I've read it, but I've never counted it among my all-time favorites (as apparently many people do), so the controversy over the story changes pretty much escaped me. I wonder at these changes, which on the face of it seem unnecessary and unfortunate, but I don't know the whole story. Where's the evidence that Chabon had any real say in approving the script? Or that he opted to make a good film about some of the book's themes, rather than take the (maybe) higher ground and never see it made at all? I don't know the whole of it, and don't see a lot online about Chabon's approval or motives except other posts, word-for-word just like franq's.

So I guess what I'm saying is, I'm not joining in the boycott. I'm reserving judgement until I see the film, or hear more information.

After all, the cuts that Steve Kloves made from book on Wonder Boys, I thought, made for a much better movie.