Is Michael Chabon God?
I can just imagine Michael's wife reading that title and thinking, O Lord, he's going to be insufferable for at least a month. Eh, maybe not. By all reports, Michael is a pretty grounded guy.
So, why this question of worshipfulness of a successful contemporary author? To explain, I need to go back several decades and explain a little about my own past. Like a lot of teens and pre-teens, my first really intense interests in fiction were science fiction, fantasy, horror, and who-done-its. My first fictions were horror, followed closely by lots of science fiction and fantasy. Of the few dozen poems and short stories I've published over the years, save one experimental piece of erotica, my only professional fiction publications are a pair of science fiction stories I sold to Aboriginal Science Fiction in the '90s.
I believe my taste in fiction has matured over the years.I still prefer science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, and horror to other varieties of fiction, but I want my fiction—no matter the genre—to be well-written. Years of exposure to Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Jack Vance, Roger Zelazny, Gene Wolfe, James Tiptree Jr., Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. LeGuin, and many more have shown that science fiction can be quality literature with well-drawn and complex characters with an honest connection to the human condition. In other words, science fiction can be fine literature and vice versa.
In 1992, I was accepted into the graduate English program at The University of Texas at Austin. Shortly after starting there, I read the works of Peter LaSalle and Zulfikar Ghose, both excellent writers and both (then) on the creative writing faculty at UT. I took an undergraduate creative writing workshop with Pete and enjoyed it immensely but felt I needed a workshop with a more focused group of writers. So, I talked with Zulfikar and he let me into one of his graduate workshops. The workshop went well, I produced some of my best work in that class (including one of the short stories I sold to Aboriginal). Zulfikar thought I belonged in the MFA program. He knew my heart really wasn't into Chaucer, that I wanted to be a professional writer. He said I should switch to creative writing, apply for a Michener fellowship, and write what I wanted to write. If I could have gotten into that program by applying to Pete and Zulfikar alone, I would have been a shoo-in. Unfortunately, the rest of the UT creative writing faculty at the time were not as open-minded. I applied to some of their classes and was told in no uncertain terms that they would not consider anything but "serious literary fiction" (two of them actually refused to look at my works). By serious they meant non-genre fiction. What's really ludicrous, as Michael Chabon points out in Maps and Legends, is that all fiction belongs to some genre. What most modern writers and critics mean when they say literary fiction is fiction of introspection. In fiction of introspection, nothing much happens in the way of physical action. The climax comes in an epiphany, sometimes stated, sometimes vaguely implied. Ironically, even science fiction and fantasy can be fiction of introspection. Gene Wolfe's "How the Whip Came Back" comes to mind. In that story, the protagonist gradually realizes how she will deal with an impending change in national laws such that—to ease growing population pressures on prisons—slavery will be legalized in lieu of imprisonment.
So, my options at the time were either to blow off the Michener fellowship and the MFA program or build up a portfolio of introspective fiction. I made an effort to build an introspective fiction portfolio while I was working my way through grad school. During my time at UT, I never felt I had amassed enough quality literary works to satisfy the range of tastes represented by the UT faculty. Plus, I never felt too comfortable with those stories. In all, likely more a failure of nerve than of writing skill.
Back to Michael Chabon. He actually did it. Starting as a fan of SF, fantasy, horror, and detective fiction, Chabon ran into the same barrier: no science fiction allowed in the workshops. In response, he produced some damned impressive collection of literary works: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, and most incredible of all his Pulitzer-award winning The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (the most amazing novel I've read in the past three decades). Wow. Then, as if that weren't enough, Chabon turns around and publishes The Yiddish Policemen's Union, an alternate history (and therefore science fiction) detective mystery novel. It won the Hugo, the Nebula, the Sidewise, and Ignotus awards. Wow. Fucking wow. That's the way you do it. Chabon has even managed to publish a Lovecraftian horror story in the New Yorker. Of course, George Saunders had already opened that door in 1992, publishing a science fiction tale—cyberpunk, no less—in the New Yorker, "Offloading for Mrs. Schwartz."
Okay, Michael Chabon may not be a god, nor Jonathan Lethem or John Crowley (who did the reverse of Chabon, starting with science fiction and fantasy novels and then moving into literary works), but they have opened the door a crack. In a literary environment that has too long considered plot-driven fiction and so-called genre fiction to be no more than adolescent escapist drivel, these writers and a growing list of others have produced genre fiction of recognized literary quality and published those works in what are generally considered "respectable" venues.
Who knows, maybe we will eventually see a science fiction writer in the Michener fellowship program.
Hell, maybe it'll be me.