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Review of Maps and Legends
Michael Chabon at a book signing at WonderCon in 2006
This collection of non-fiction essays takes on the questions of what should make up contemporary literature and from where does artistic inspiration spring.
Known for his novels and short stories that often uses elements of genre fiction, Chabon uses these essays as a means to defend forms such as detective stories, comic books, and science-fiction that literature often shuns. He sets this tone early by starting with the essay “Trickster in a Suit of Lights,” that defends the idea of literature as entertainment and genre fiction as having no less respectable traditions that literary fiction. He manages this with clear prose and reasoning rather than with a combative tone.
Genre, Myth, and Literature
Chabon continues to tackle these ideas as he moves into essays like “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes,” “Ragnarok Boy,” and “On Daemons & Dust.” Each one takes a serious look at why certain works like detective stories, Western myths, and children’s fiction are successful and how they influence generations of readers and writers including Chabon. It is also not difficult to note that the genres often scoffed at by literary and cultural critics are often the sort of writing enjoyed by young people, women, minorities and other marginalized groups.
For readers not taken with Chabon’s thesis, he provides plenty of other analysis on more topics like the writing craft and serious literature with essays like “My Back Pages” and “Dark Adventure: On Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.” These parts show not only that Chabon can employ his critical skills on tradition subjects but also that he has been treating his other subjects with the same caliber of writing he deploys for the business of literary fiction. For many readers, this willingness to examine both literary and popular writing with the same critical eye will be a breath of fresh air. Ultimately, it shows how Chabon values competent writing and stories that connect with their audience above the arbitrary ghettoization of various literary and genre camps since people on both sides of the divide can be defensive and aggressive in maintaining the boundaries of their chosen camp.
Personal and Professional
An element in the structure of Maps and Legends is a movement toward increasingly personal essays. While the tone remains warm and clever throughout, the last five essays are concerned more with Chabon’s personal development as a writer. This development shows how many of the theories he discussed earlier can be seen in the practice of his writing. These essays, however, will be of more value to readers interested in seeing a writer examine his own development or general fans of Chabon, rather than readers looking for critical writing and analysis of other texts or theories.
This is not to say he includes no personal stories in the early section of the collection. The last few, however, give the most concrete examples from his own life and invite the reader to consider what he or she considers being his or her source of inspiration. It is also good that he shares some of his concerns about his writing novels like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. In this way, aspiring writers can see that even successful writers entertain serious doubts about the nature of the profession.
A reader comes away feeling Chabon has created a first-rate defense of writers and readers who value entertainment and powerful genre writing no less than the masterpieces of the literary canon. This essay collection is an entertaining and important addition to the reading list of anyone interested in contemporary literature.
Chabon, Michael. Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008.
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