Saturday, May 21, 2005

On 'The Mysteries of Pittsburgh'

An interesting essay by Michael Chabon at The New York Review of Books, about writing his first novel. My attention was especially caught by these paragraphs about genre fiction versus the other kind:

The truth was that I had come to a rough patch in my understanding of what I wanted my writing to be. I was in a state of confusion. Over the past four years I had been struggling to find a way to accommodate my taste for the genre fiction I had been reading with the greatest pleasure for the better part of my life--fantasy, horror, crime, and science fiction--to the way that I had come to feel about the English language, which was that it and I seemed to have something going. Something (on my side at least) much closer to deep, passionate, physical, and intellectual love than anything else I had ever experienced with a human up to that point. But when it came to the use of language, somehow, my verbal ambition and my ability felt hard to frame or fulfill within the context of traditional genre fiction. I had found some writers, such as J.G. Ballard, Italo Calvino, J.L. Borges, and Donald Barthelme, who wrote at the critical point of language, where vapor turns to starry plasma, and yet who worked, at least sometimes, in the terms and tropes of genre fiction. They all paid a price, however. The finer and more masterly their play with language, the less connected to the conventions of traditional, bourgeois narrative form--unified point of view, coherent causal sequence of events, linear structure, naturalistic presentation--their fiction seemed to become. Duly I had written my share of pseudo-Ballard, quasi-Calvino, and neo-Borges. I had fun doing it. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't stop preferring traditional, bourgeois narrative form.

I wanted to tell stories, the kind with set pieces and long descriptive passages, and 'round' characters, and beginnings and middles and ends. And I wanted to instill--or rather I didn't want to lose--that quality, inherent in the best science fiction, which was sometimes called "the sense of wonder." If my subject matter couldn't do it—if I wasn't writing about people who sailed through neutron stars or harnessed suns together—then it was going to fall to my sentences themselves to open up the heads of my readers and decant into them enough crackling plasma to light up the eye sockets for a week.

But I didn't want to write science fiction, or a version of science fiction, some kind of pierced-and-tattooed, doctorate-holding, ironical stepchild of science fiction. I wanted to write something with reach. Welty and Faulkner started and ended in small towns in Mississippi but somehow managed to plant flags at the end of time and in the minds of readers around the world. A good science fiction novel appeared to have an infinite reach—it could take you to the place where the universe bent back on itself—but somehow, in the end, it ended up being the shared passion of just you and that guy at the Record Graveyard on Forbes Avenue who was really into Hawkwind.

I wasn't considering any actual, numerical readership here—I wasn't so bold. Rather I was thinking about the set of axioms that speculative fiction assumed, and how it was a set that seemed to narrow and refine and program its audience, like a protein that coded for a certain suite of traits. Most science fiction seemed to be written for people who already liked science fiction; I wanted to write stories for anyone, anywhere, living at any time in the history of the world. (Twenty-one, I was twenty-one!)


  1. dear Jenny
    this is fakrul from dhaka, Bangladesh. I've just been introduced 2 light reading via village voice...

    we r going 2 publish a magazine that is expected 2 hit the stands on early June.
    we'd really appreciate if u kindly give us permission 2 re/print your blogs in our magazine....we'd send u a hard copy if u provide us a mailing address and send u the URL as soon as our web edition is up...for our first issue we would like 2 publish your blog My beloved grandmother....
    please grant us permission 2 do so
    my email
    take care