Michael Chabon, who makes many critics’ lists of the best authors writing today, is considered a literary writer. He’s certainly an excellent writer: His use of language is exquisite, his characters are complex, and his imagination goes everywhere.
But I’ve got news for all those literary critics: Chabon’s book The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is about as classic a detective novel as I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot of them).
It also has speculative fiction elements and it’s obviously alternate history. Chabon won the Nebula, Hugo, and Sidewise awards for it. But the detective story elements are the strongest. The main character, Meyer Landsman, is a cop whose life is falling apart (complete with an ex-wife who is also his boss). He lives in a dump, drinks too much, and gets obsessive about his work, especially about cases he’s told to leave be. Oh, and he’s damn good at solving mysteries, too.
It’s is beautifully written, of course, but if beautiful writing was the only criteria for literary, I can think of hundreds of books that deserve the label.
I’m not knocking Chabon. He isn’t one of those authors who denies it when he writes a book that fits into a genre besides the literary, like the people Sherwood Smith wrote about in her post here last Sunday. In fact, he shows respect for genre fiction. He was at the Nebula ceremony when he won, and he was not only gracious to the crowd, he gushed about Michael Moorcock, who was being named a grand master.
Nor does he write in the same genre every time, unlike many writers (in all genres, literary included). Each of his books seems to be different.
Gentlemen of the Road is sword and sorcery, but it was serialized in The New York Times Magazine. Chabon has also written YA fantasy, comics, steampunk, and a Sherlock Holmes story. (I didn’t know about that one until I started looking him up, but I’m going to have to go track that it down.)
And I gather that even his work that fits into the literary genre more neatly has plot and story, like a good science fiction or detective novel. (His latest novel, Telegraph Avenue, is on my “to read” list.)
What I really want to know is how he gets away with all this genre jumping, especially since some of the genres he plays in don’t get no respect.
Yes, he’s good, but I have read other writers just as good who get pigeonholed and can’t seem to get out.
Someone I mentioned this to suggested it was because he started out writing things that fit in the literary genre, so now he gets treated as a literary writer — with the accompanying respect — no matter what he writes.
But if that worked for everyone, maybe Margaret Atwood would be able to quit denying she writes science fiction.
As someone who likes to write in a variety of genres myself, I admit to a certain amount of jealousy here. But I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to write more than one kind of story.
Genre can be a useful guide for readers, but it shouldn’t be a jail for writers.