Mike Chabon v. Lit Snob Grad Students

A recent entry over at the excellent io9.com blog details Michael Chabon’s early interactions with the nefarious Guild of Lit Snobs while studying for his MFA at UC Irvine. Chabon, of course, has recently won the Nebula for The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (a book high on our summer reading list), and previously won the Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. This gives him the rare lit/sci-fi awards double.

Here’s the quote that hit home:

“…I certainly remember in my early 20s, I wanted to write SF of a kind back then. And I turned in a lot of these stories to the writers workshop at UC Irvine. I was met with, if not hostility then incomprehension. [People said things like] “I can’t help you with that. I don’t write science fiction. I don’t read science fiction.”

I recall very similar reactions to the first sci-fi story I turned in to workshop. It was brutal. Fortunately for me, another professor in a later workshop–himself a fan of Lucius Sheperd, Orson Scott Card, Stephen King, etc.–put the kibosh on the lit-snobbery. Of course this didn’t stop the wannabe Guild of Lit Snob members from basically ignoring my work from that point forward, but some of my peers were closet ‘genre’ admirers so it all worked out in the end.

Those reactions, though–especially the incomprehension–still chafe me to this day. You’d have to be living in deliberate denial to get through college and not know a little something about sci-fi and fantasy. As if the concepts of those stories I’d turned in, which included cloning, telepathy, and virtual reality, were so radical as to defy convention… Yet you’d have thought I submitted something in Chinese. Unfortunately this is the game you may have to play if you enter the local English Department from the realm of Speculative Fiction.

Now Mike Chabon has often espoused a love and affinity for the various ‘genre’ fictions, like sci-fi, mysteries, comic books, thrillers, etc.–much to the chagrin of the aforementioned Guild of Lit Snobs. He’s edited ‘genre’ anthologies, guest written comics, and his new book of essays, Maps and Legends, discusses the very topic of ‘genre’ v. lit fiction. So he’s aces in our book. I also very much enjoy his excellent writing. Kavalier & Clay is one of my favorites, and Werewolves in Their Youth was one of the primary collections I used to buttress my short fiction skills.

Why do we have to have a versus mentality for books in this country anyway? Why do so many English professors have an antagonistic view of ‘genre’ fiction? Why do some writers feel the need to apologize for their (often clumsy and ill-informed) forays into the realm of sci-fi/fantasy/horror? I don’t know. No one has every given me an adequate explanation. I suspect it has something to do with the legacy of the pulp era and how booksellers like to organize their stores. Of course we could also blame the Republicans…

One thought on “Mike Chabon v. Lit Snob Grad Students

  1. What’s particularly galling is that a good chunk of Shakespeare is steeped in fantasy. How can defenders of the literary canon embrace the Tempest or even Hamlet without acknowledging literature with a speculative bent in contemporary writing?

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