Geeking Out About Genres With Michael ChabonS

Michael Chabon's celebrated science fiction and geeky pop culture, and his latest book Manhood For Amateurs is a love letter to fandom. So when we managed to ask him a few questions, we were excited to geek out about genres.

Michael Chabon, of course, won the Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay, his novel about Golden Age comics creators dealing with inspiration, sexual identity and the Holocaust, among other things. He also wrote the Hugo-winning alternate history novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union. Both Manhood and his earlier essay collection, Maps And Legends, deal with geeky, science-fictional elements. And he edited two anthologies of pulp science fiction by some of today's best authors, McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales and McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories. (And according to his Wikipedia page, he created a fictional alter ego, a quasi-Lovecraftian horror novelist named August Van Zorn, which I didn't know about until just now.)

The thing that's stuck in my head most about Manhood For Amateurs is definitely the passionate espousal of fandom, and the idea that fan obsession comes from the same place as the artistic impulse — the desire for communal expression. Why do you think people often see fans as in opposition to "true" creative people? Now that fans are running all the comic book companies, producing Doctor Who, and reinventing Star Trek, do you see this changing? What will it take for a work of fanfic to be recognized as art? Have you ever written fanfic?

Well, I'm not sure I fully accept the premise of the question: "People often see fans as in opposition to 'true' creative people." Or rather, you may be right, "people" do see it that way, but if so then these people are deeply ignorant of the history of popular culture and its production. Fans began to take over creative responsibility in the world of Science Fiction as early as the mid-thirties; I doubt that by the mid-seventies there were many major practitioners in the genre who had not started out as a passionate, Con-going, zine-compiling fans. The second great age of American cinema was entirely created by fans (Coppola, Scorsese, Rafelson, Ashby, Spielberg, Lucas, et al) ; The Godfather is as much about the intensive study of gangster films as it is about gangsters. Same goes, even more so, for Scorsese. Rock and roll, same deal. The Beatles work is fan fiction on the work of Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers: It's not simple (or even complex) imitation; it's elaboration, infilling, transformation, a strategic redployment of the tropes and figures of the source material/primary text; the Beatles are in dialog with Buddy Holly, as Badfinger was in dialog with the Beatles and Jellyfish with Badfinger. Or you could go Stones/Stooges/Sex Pistols. The word "influence" is insufficient and too one-sided to describe a relationship that is much more accurately reflected by the system of tribute/ appropriation/critique that fandom employs. This kind of process, by which one generation of fan/critics (because anyone who doesn't understand that a fan is a critic doesn't know what a fan is, and there is nothing sadder to contemplate than the idea of a critic who is not also a fan) becomes the creators whose work inspires and obsesses and is critiqued by the next generation of fans, who in turn become critic-creators, has occurred in every popular art form across the board going back fifty or five thousand years. The apostles wrote fan fiction on Torah. So your "people" are silly people, and we don't need to listen to them.

The other thing about Manhood For Amateurs, now that I've had a chance to mull it over, is the sense that shifting gender roles and the changing demands as you grow older mean that you have to keep reinventing yourself. To what extent is this like the process of world-building in a fantasy/SF universe?

It means — it means, if I take your meaning aright, that I am my own sequel, my own series, the CHAPTERHOUSE OF DUNE to my own DUNE: MESSIAH.

Geeking Out About Genres With Michael ChabonS

Why do you think such a high proportion of alternate history novels revolve around World War II in some way or another? Do you think it's different for authors who weren't alive during World War II and the Holocaust to imagine them turning out differently, than for someone like, say, Philip K. Dick, who was in high school during the war?

Well, of course PKD did a pretty fair job of imagining just that in THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. I think the thing about WWII is that it was so huge, so important, so clearly one of the two or three most significant periods in human history — and yet even a cursory study of it reveals it to have been woven of dozens if not hundreds of teensy little frail threads which, if pulled or tucked a different way, might easily have produced a completely different outcome. Say, for example, that the British Navy had not captured a German cypher machine from a sunk U-Boat in 1941. Cracking of the navy codes is delayed... key messages are never intercepted...

That's true for EVERYTHING that happens of course: "for want of a nail." But you can really feel the Little, Big of it with WWII.

As someone who's written both historical fiction and alternate history, how would you say the research process differs for the two genres? Do they allow you to comment on the here and now in much the same way, or in different ways?

Research is research; historical fiction is alternate history, in the sense that you are still saying What if? What if, for example, a Russian nobleman named Andrei Bolkonski, with such and such a set of traits, was running around the battlefield of Austerlitz, getting wounded and rescued by Napoleon, whom he once admired...etc. Whether you are writing Napoleon Loses Austerlitz (alternate history) or simply Fictional Prince Andrei Gets Injured at Austerlitz (historical fiction) the research is going to be the same.

Geeking Out About Genres With Michael ChabonS

When your first novel came out, you were nearly mis-classified as a gay writer. You told the Metro Weekly in 2002, "There's a big lump that's called literary fiction or mainstream fiction or non-genre fiction or whatever, and that's sort of where I am. That's not a problem that really dogs me, except for that brief moment when Mysteries of Pittsburgh came out and Newsweek did a big roundup of all the hot new gay novels. That was me being pigeonholed and possibly confined to a section of the bookstore from which it can be very hard to get out once you're in. Luckily the book attracted a diverse readership."

Do you think people who are writing science fiction or fantasy should try to avoid getting shelved in those sections, for the same reasons you were keen to avoid getting shelved in LGBT fiction? Should we, as readers of SF and fantasy, be trying to get the novels we love shelved in "fiction," or should we be trying to find ways to help deserving genre authors to cross over? (Like your inclusion of people like Tim Pratt and Cory Doctorow in the Best American Short Stories anthology.) If this is just a marketing issue, do we need better labels, or just more flexible ones?

Pride and Resentment are the twin banners flown from the walls of all ghettos. We love being in; we want to get out. We are at home; home is not the world. Endogamy weakens us over time.

I think, in the end, it is largely a marketing issue. Personally I would prefer to see bookstores shelve all fiction together regardless of genre. Or maybe just have two sections, "Good Stuff" and "Crap." Into Crap we will consign all novels regardless of genre or reputation that trade in cliche and dead language. If I ever own a bookstore I will do it that way. Only I will just leave out the Crap section.