The Grad Students Who Mocked Michael Chabon's Science Fiction

Illustration for article titled The Grad Students Who Mocked Michael Chabons Science Fiction

In an alternate universe, Michael Chabon has a long track record of writing space opera. When the Yiddish Policemen's Union author was a young writer in UC Irvine's MFA program, he wrote some science fiction stories and brought them to his peers. He was met with "if not hostility, then incomprehension," and so he switched to writing literary fiction. We went to a Chabon reading and Q&A on Tuesday and he asked him about anti-SF prejudice among the literati. His full response, after the jump.


Chabon, of course, has come in for some scorn recently from Publisher's Weekly (In PW's review of his essay collection Maps And Legends) for being "bitter and defensive about his love for genre fiction such as mysteries and comic books. Serious writers, he says, cannot venture into these genres without losing credibility."

Without mentioning that mean review, we asked Chabon whether he feels he's faced any opprobrium for his love of science fiction and other genre fiction. He responded:

I don't actually feel like I've suffered from that that much... I'm coming at it now having proven myself, and I've established my credentials, and i don't get as much resistance as I might. But 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." That was part of what encouraged me to stop trying for a while and start doing something different... Part of what made me want to write [the novel] Mysteries Of Pittsburgh was I wanted to not waste my time with something [that couldn't get any meaningful feedback at Irvine]. I'm not really encountering that right now, but I certainly do see that other writers [encounter it]... And when HP Lovecraft was selected for the Library of America, so many of the reviews were supercilious, [with] raised eyebrows... A lot of the writers I most admire have suffered from it.


Other stuff Chabon addressed on Tuesday:

The status of his movies: Kavalier And Clay "is dead for now, nothing is happening, totally moribund, what we have here is a dead shark." The Yiddish Policemen's Union has had the "Coen brothers hired to write and direct and do all that... They have a reputation for working quickly and getting movies made, they don't have a reputation for getting a bunch of movies started and leaving them behind."

Why he rewrote Jewish history in Yiddish:

It's American history that I'm rewriting... I read about this at some point: Harold Ickes, father of the soon to be out-of-work Hillary [Clinton] adviser, [was] Secretary of the Interior in the Roosevelt Administration [and] was deeply concerned about the plight of the Jews. Since he was the Secretary of the Interior, he had this one thing he was in charge of, territories [including Alaska]. He had this plan of creating reservations [for the Jews]. You read about these little footnotes and might-have-beens ... and then I encountered this phrasebook called Say It In Yiddish. It says on the cover, "A Phrasebook for Travelers." [It's a] modern phrasebook dealing with all sorts of conveniences, dealing with travel agents and other things in Yiddish... [including some neologisms, like a new word for "downtown."] I just thought, "where would you go with this phrasebook? Where would you take a phrasebook like this?" The more I thought about it, the more I thought I would like to go there. I wish I could see it for myself.


Chabon also mentioned that he loves alternate histories like The Man In The HIgh Castle and Fatherland.

Why is Yiddish Policemen's Union third person, present tense:

I wrote a 600 page version in first person past tense, [a] traditional Raymond Chandler version... I ended up with 600 pages of this loquacious Jew who wouldn't shut up and kept going off on tangents. He was a terrible detective narrator, he couldn't tell a story straight. "Just the facts" was not possible for him. I made the switch to third person, and that threw the whole novel open. I threw out that entire 600 page draft... I didn't want it to feel like a fairy land or a made-up place... I wanted it to feel like now, it's happening now... as soon as I switched to the present tense it felt more now. I felt more involved in what was happening, so maybe the readers would [as well].


Is it just a coincidence that Iranian president Ahmadjinedad said the Jews should go to Alaska, which is the backstory of Yiddish Policemen's Union?

Total coincidence... at the root of this outrageous statement and behind this novel [are the same idea]. What underlies the initial Ickes proposal [was] this idea that we need an empty place to put these people... Harold Ickes looked at his map and said there's 15,000, 20,000 natives living there, and 10,000 Europeans living in this vast territory [of Alaska], and he thought: great place to put these people nobody wants... The same kind of spatial logic is underlying what Ahmadjinedad is saying. He's trying to come up with what in his view is a rational inoffensive proposal: "You've got all this space up there, you love these people so much. Why don't you take them?" I don't think he's actually read this book.


In Yiddish, is the Hotel Zamenhof named after founder of Esperanto?

Yes. All the signage is in Esperanto... I imagine some pious soul, founder of the hotel, was an admirer of Esperanto... Zamenhof was originally a Yiddish speaker. Yiddish was originally called Jewish Esperanto [because it was a pan-European language.] It was a failed project. It was a failed utopia. It didn't work out, but it's still there. [That's] true of this place in my novel.


Share This Story

Get our newsletter


Charlie Jane Anders

@Tim Faulkner: Apparently that stereotype isn't really true, at least in many MFA programs... my friends who got MFAs recently complained that everybody was too damn nice and they didn't get anything useful out of all the niceness.