Monday, April 6, 2009

Writer of the Day: Michael Chabon

Last week I took a group of students to the National Undergraduate Literature Conference in Ogden, Utah. This conference, held at Weber State University annually, gives students the chance to read their own works of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and literary analysis to a large audience, and it lets them hear from and meet successful authors.

This year's keynote author was the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Michael Chabon (pronounced SHAY-bon). I've been a fan of Chabon's since I read his book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay years ago.

I like Chabon for two reasons:

First, I like Chabon because he's hilarious. He has a dry, occasionally sarcastic wit, and he takes ordinary, mundane objects and uses them to point out the absurdity of life (which he did in his speech by observing that any Lego creation these days comes with an oppressive set of instructions that demands to be followed exactly. These instructions make putting together a Lego toy a non-creative, painful process that, when completed, renders the possibility of playing with a Lego creation and potentially dismantling it by accident unthinkable).

Second, and more importantly, I like Chabon because he's trying to reclaim literature for the common reader. He's doing so by arguing for the value of entertaining, plot-filled books. (Gasp!)He's even said, "I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain. Period."

Heavily influenced by comic books and popular culture (his keynote address included extended references not just to Legos, but also to Doctor Who, the anatomical impossibility of comic book women, and The Fantastic Four) Chabon's writing is easily accessible.

Also, unlike other successful writers who tend to pooh-pooh genre fiction, Chabon vehemently defends it. He even won a Hugo award and a Nebula award (science fiction prizes) for his book The Yiddish Policemen's Union. He criticizes today's literary fiction as "plotless" and attacks what he calls the "contemporary, quotidian . . . moment-of-truth revelatory story."

Chabon's on a mission, trying to "annihilate" the academic bias against genre fiction by blending the best elements of literary fiction (attention to language and character) with the best elements of genre fiction (entertaining plots).

If you struggle with overly literary books and had a tough time plowing through Unaccustomed Earth, maybe you should check out Chabon. He's blending two worlds. He's literary and artistic, but he's also a firm believer in entertaining plots.

Learn more about his books here.

NOTE: We start discussing The Book Thief in four days, so get your copy soon.


Jane @ What About Mom? said...

Sounds like Chabon does a better job of defending my recent assertions about "literature" better than I ever could ;).

I'll recommend his Yiddish Policemen book to my dad; he loves science fiction!

Professor Josh said...

Jane - yes, I did think of your recent thoughtsas I wrote this post.

I like that Chabon refuses to accept either/or thinking when it comes to the discussion of literary books vs entertaining books. Why, he seems to be saying, can't a book be plot-filled, playful, fun, important, carefully-written, and artistic all at the same time?

Of course, a book can (and should) be all of these things. Perhaps I (along with my academic colleagues) have been too snobbish, and maybe I should be using this blog to uncover books that navigate both the literary and popular worlds.

After all, reading should be, first and foremost, a lot of fun.

Liz-a-nator said...

I love love love Michael Chabon! Kavalier and Clay is fantastic. And I've never read Wonder Boys but I'll tell you that the film is brilliant.

Although I don't know if I trust him when he says that he writes to entertain and that's's my opinion that when authors truly do this, it produces "cotton candy literature"...enjoyable but melts in your mouth fairly quickly. But Chabon's writing ain't that. Maybe he addresses valuable themes and lessons on accident? Hmmm...I want him to qualify and expand on his statement a little bit more...

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