Thu
Oct 8 2009 5:24pm

Michael Chabon: We’re All Amateurs Here

Michael Chabon, the first and only person ever to win both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Hugo Award for Best Novel, read on Wednesday evening to a packed house at the Union Square Barnes & Noble from his new collection of interlinked personal essays, Manhood for Amateurs. The first piece he read, “Art of Cake,” was a recollection of cooking as a boy that touched on success and failure, gender roles, mother-son relationships, and the economics of food. Interesting, but also secondary, because the second piece was pretty much entirely about living and raising a family as a geek! He spent several minutes talking about Daleks!

The piece was titled “The Amateur Family,” and, elaborating from a brief scene demonstrating the love Chabon’s entire family shares for the new Doctor Who TV show, it reflected on the value of geekery and fandom on an individual and familial level. Early in the essay, Chabon defines his terms—or rather, considers the terms available (nerd, geek, or fan) and discards them:

Perhaps there is no perfect word for the kind of people I have raised my children to be: a word that encompasses obsessive scholarship, passionate curiosity, curatorial tenderness, and an irrepressible desire to join in the game, to inhabit in some manner—through writing, drawing, dressing up, or endless conversational riffing and Talmudic debate—the world of the endlessly inviting, endlessly inhabitable work of popular art. The closest I have ever come for myself is amateur, in all the best senses of the word: a lover; a devotee; a person driven by passion and obsession to do it—to explore the imaginary world—oneself. And if we must accept the inevitable connotation of hopeless ineptitude that amateur carries, then at least let us stipulate that we shall be hopeless and inept like Max Fischer, the hero of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore: in the most passionate, heedless, and whole-hearted way.

From there, he goes on to describe the way fandom binds people together:

For in playing, or writing, or drawing, or simply talking oneself deep into the world of a popular artwork that invites the regard of the amateur, the fan, one is seeking above all to connect, not only with the world of the show, comic book, or film, but with the encircling, embracing metaworld of all those who love it as much as you do.

Most self-professed geeks would probably agree that Chabon has, in these two paragraphs, made a reasonably clear and particularly eloquent stab at defining the what and why of fandom. But he does not, then, discuss fandom as the societal phenomenon, the loose affiliation that brings us together at sites like Tor.com. Chabon’s fandom is most centrally, and most centrally a metaphor, for connecting with the people he most wants to connect with: his wife and children.

Each of us stands ready, at any moment, to talk Who, to riff and spin and sketch out new contours for the world we collectively inhabit, creating and endlessly recreating the fandom that is our family.

Maybe all families are a kind of fandom…. And maybe love, mortality, and loss, and all the children and mythologies and sorrows they engender, make passionate amateurs—nerds, geeks, and fanboys—of us all.

Cue applause.

After the reading, Chabon took questions from the audience, including one about growing up in the planned community of Columbia, Maryland, a sort of Utopian, speculative project itself. Chabon said that it had been a great place to grow up (a place where all the streets were named after works of American art and literature!), and that what most stuck out about it to him was the way it was a display of a dream, James Rouse’s dream, brought to life. It was an idealistic place that helped shape him into an idealistic person, but it also ensured he was in for a rude awakening when he went off to Pittsburgh for college. Both the optimistic nature of the town and the comparative harshness of reality outside it, he felt, had an impact on him and his work.

The other questions from the audience were somewhat less trenchant (though I was amused when one person asked “With your insight as a writer, how do you think Obama’s doing?”), but I managed to fit in a quick question when I went up afterward to get books signed (p.s., I now have a first edition of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union inscribed “For the geeks”).

After thanking Chabon for his work as a geek ambassador, to which he responded “It’s my sacred duty,” I asked whether he thought he’d ever write a futuristic science fiction novel, or a fully secondary-world fantasy. Chabon responded:

I’m not sure. Maybe. I’ve thought about it, but I don’t have ideas for any at the moment…. Actually, I just discovered Iain M. Banks. Until I can do it that well, it’s probably not worth it.

Which, on reflection, I suppose is not disappointing at all. We have Banks already. But Chabon is singular in doing what he’s doing: constantly, cheerfully, and from a position of near-universal respect, setting the manifold pleasures of genre before non-fans, and inviting fans to consider their old pleasures from new perspectives.

Not bad for an amateur, I’d say.


Joshua Starr works for DAW Books and is a fan (...amateur?) of speculative fiction in all media. ALL MEDIA.

5 comments
eric orchard
1. orchard
Great article! I love reading Chabon's ruinations on life, he's so interesting and with a really humble approach. I'm going to paste up what he said abut raising kid on my fridge so my son can grow up a geek as well.
Joshua Starr
2. JStarr
Thanks! Glad you enjoyed. Yeah, in the essays I've read he comes across as a thoughtful person whose approach to life and work are informed by generally sound principles: compassion, honesty, and consciousness of his own fallibility.

For my own part, though, I don't feel Chabon is quite as strong in the essay form as he is with novels. In the essays I've read so far, he has a tendency I find annoying: to reach for meaningfulness and universality at the end of every one, even when they're too short to really support his assertions. But he's good with prose, so they're fun to read, and every once in a while he busts out an insight that seems real and valuable to me. This book is really a cross between essay collection and memoir, painting a reasonably full portrait of the author as a person.

One of the more interesting things about the experience for me was that, in retrospect, I think I didn't really *want* Chabon humanized. I kind of enjoyed thinking of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay as a work of remote genius. Now it just seems more like a really good book. That's the healthier, more accurate view anyway, though, so I'm all right with it.

(For an essayist I love, whose essays, though they also reveal self, remain primarily focused on the non-self topics under consideration, refer to David Foster Wallace. His essays often seem to me composed of nothing *but* brilliant insights. But I bet, if I'd had a chance to meet him, or to read personal writing from him as straightforward as Chabon's, I'd have the same mixed reaction there, too.)
Dayle McClintock
3. trinityvixen
He's so refreshingly honest about his geekdom, I love it. I mean, it's not that he doesn't also have a sense of humor about it, but there's this completely unabashed love of the geek and respect for it that is so frequently missing in other writers with as much mainstream appeal as Chabon has. I really love it.
Joshua Starr
4. JStarr
@3: I knew he liked genre works and championed them with projects like the McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, but I didn't quite understand how deeply and broadly he loved geek stuff before. But yeah, it was pretty great that this was the essay he chose for the reading - though actually, most of other ones in the book contain "geek" references of one type or another.
Jerome Weijers
5. Jerome Weijers
The amateur family. Ja, I guess that would be us.

In this world of constantly shifting cultural and technological landscapes (yes, Windows 7 i looming large just below the horizon and Chinese is being offered as a second language for the first time at certain Danish gymnasia), we're all each trying to find the best way to navigate the through the present and into the future.

Nice having someone as well-spoken and well-formulated as Michael Chabon to make us aware that we're not alone in this.

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