Tip of the Quill: A Journal
On Maps and Legends.

This morning I finished reading Michael Chabon’s new collection of essays Maps and Legends (2008, McSweeney’s Books). I knew that I enjoyed Chabon’s work from the few essays and chapters of his I’ve read already, but this one really knocked it out of the park. An embarrassed confession: I have yet to finish reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, as I got pulled away from it to read something else (as happens all too frequently in my life), but this one was such an amazing page-turner that even though I was also reading several other books at the same time (I also finished Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale yesterday), I kept getting pulled back to it.
I’m perfectly comfortable in admitting that Maps and Legends may be one of those right-place-right-time books for me, and that your mileage may vary – but as it is, Chabon’s words pierced me through the heart like a perfectly aimed barrage of arrows. Or, to mix and mangle metaphors, reading his thoughts about genre and literature is like being a private listening to a grizzled veteran general telling tales of his life in the trenches.
Chabon talks about how he grew up loving genre works like science fiction and noir detective stories, and then feeling the sting of the ‘literary’ in his creative writing workshops in college, which is precisely the same thing that I went through, and how that affected his decision to shelve his genre work in favor of the more literary texts that would become his first and second published novels, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonder Boys. Examining his career arc is incredibly informative: he played by the rules with these literary texts and then continued on to write Kavalier and Clay, which mixed the literary with touches of genre, and now he’s trending more towards genre with touches of literary in his most recent work Gentlemen of the Road.
I look at this as a sort of inverted career path to someone like Neil Gaiman, who began his career in comics and has been playing in other media ever since. What’s particularly fascinating is how “literary” Chabon won the Pulitzer but the World Fantasy Award people changed the rules after “pulp” Gaiman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream took the cookie so a comic could never win again. To me, this smacks of branding more than literary achievement: if you start out as a genre writer, you will always be branded as such, but if you start out as literary you may be tolerated your dalliances in the lower arts. Of course this is primarily being done by the literati – the flipside of this type of judgement would be, I suppose, the fiscal and readership measuring sticks, both of which I suspect Gaiman would win by a wide margin. Then again, Chabon has had several movie deals already, so my guessing which of them has established a bigger family fortune is both crass and pointless. Still, as someone measuring his idols to plot out a plan for the immediate future, all this conjecture does serve a purpose. Whether or not any hard data can be obtained from this research is irrelevant – the exercise in itself is illuminating.
Long story short, Maps and Legends is a terrific collection of essays, extremely readable and enjoyable and educational all bundled together – and exactly what you’re looking for if you’re a would-be up-and-comer trying to navigate the tricky borderlands between high and low culture, genre and literary fiction, academia and pop intellectualism. Add to that the additional niceties that proceeds from the book go to support Dave Eggers’ 826 Valencia literary project for kids and that this hardcover edition is easily one of the most beautifully-designed literary artifacts I own (the multi-layered dust jacket has be experienced to be believed), I can easily and happily say that Maps and Legends is a must-have, highly recommended, five stars, three thumbs up and so on. Buy it.