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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Are You Not Entertained?

After tortuous weeks of waiting since I first saw it on the release schedule, I got my hands on Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends, a nonfiction collection from McSweeney's, proceeds as always to 826National.

While I only made it through the first of these sixteen 'linked essays on reading and writing,' I am already intrigued and look forward to getting through the rest.

The first portion deals with the paradoxical notion that (i) literature can be entertaining and (ii) entertainment can be literary. Specifically, his concern with the continued segregation of genre fiction the ghettos of mystery, scifi and fantasy, and how that puts a glass ceiling over quality work that never gets a chance to be recognized in a 'real' publication like the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly.

And he's right. I barely read scifi or fantasy and a lot of that has to do with something as superficial as the cover dress. It took Chabon reminding me of the blue dots with spaceship or magnifying glass to label genre fiction at the library put me off those titles. They looked cheap, second rate, the seventies-era paintings of aliens and interstellar vistas couldn't compel me like a a slick Chip Kidd cover for a Murakami book [aside: to fetch the previous link, I notice Mr. Kidd has designed two designs that have recently caught my eye at work. Design is teh awesome]. When someone like Neil Gaiman punches through the ceiling, the garish paintings are replaced with brightly coloured, stripped down designs meant to fit in with the rest of the books in the 'real' literature section.

And Chabon wonders, what is it about book retailers that makes them think the universe will implode if all the fiction gets tossed together in one giant alphabetical pile, Jane Austen with Isaac Asimov, Oscar Wilde with HG Wells? Customers seem to like the idea, I have at least one per day ask me where Ray Bradbury [for example] is because they can't find him under 'B'. So I have to explain that he gets filed under science fiction, along the back wall.

But the question is this: if Bradbury gets roped off in the ghetto, why not Cormac McCarthy? 'The Road' is an alternate reality take on a dystopian, post-apocalyptic America? What's more scifi than that? The same goes for Kazuo Ishiguro's sublime 'Never Let Me Go,' another tale of alternate reality that has more in common with 'Soylent Green' than 'The Remains of the Day.' Why do they get a pass?

Chabon thinks it has to do with the conventions of genre fiction, the rules prescribed to horror, or fantasy, or mystery, that authors who dedicate their work to the subject utilize. McCarthy and Ishiguro don't follow the rules generally associated with scifi, so they get to stay in the adult pool.

Line blurring of that sort seems to go over better in film, where something like 'Shaun of the Dead' can be a comedy first and horror second, or the work of Tarantino, which is clearly an amalgam of all the director's 'lower' influences approached seriously despite their visceral thrills.

What say you, Windsor? Is 'entertainment' a dirty word in your mind? Do you draw the line in your head between 'low' and 'high' art? And what marks the difference?

In any case, 20 pages in and Mr. Chabon has got me psyched. I'll keep you posted.

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