Consider the traditional idea of a “man of letters.” This man writes canonical novels of great import. In between, he dabbles in high-minded criticism. Releases an occasional slim volume of poetry. Perhaps an autobiography filled with name-dropping anecdotes and insight on his artistic refinement.
The Man of Letters also occasionally holds forth for audiences of well-bred, cultured people in well-bred, cultured enclaves like Aspen, Colo., where Michael Chabon will indeed hold forth at the Wheeler Opera House on Monday, April 9.
But Chabon, in his near-quarter-century of writing acclaimed genre-bending novels that ignore distinctions between high art and low, has redefined the idea of a Man of Letters.
In between masterly works of fiction like “Wonder Boys,” “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” Chabon has dabbled in writing everything from children’s and teen fiction to comic books and Hollywood screenplays like the recent sci-fi epic “John Carter.”
“I dislike being labeled,” he says from his home in Berkely, Calif. “I dislike being pigeonholed. And after I wrote ‘Kavalier and Clay’ I kind of became the comic book guy, and after I wrote ‘Yiddish Policemen’s Union’ I was sort of the Yiddish guy. I’ve been writing quasi-genre fiction for a long time now, and I like to keep changing.”
Chabon’s 1988 debut coming-of-age novel, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” established him as a literary darling at age 25. He followed it with an endearing, tender portrait of pedagogy in 1995’s “Wonder Boys.” His four novels since have all played with the tropes of geeky genre fiction, yet they simultaneously reach the soul-stirring apogee of what the written word can achieve. (Last month, his ouvre even won him the Man of Letters-y honor of induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.)
If his artistic choices are odd or bold, he says it’s because he’s tried to write the stories he’d want to read. The idea of reading a counter-factual history with a far-flung premise like “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” for example, sounded fun to Chabon, now 48.
“When I started thinking of writing a hard-boiled detective novel set in a fictitious, Yiddish-speaking enclave of Alaska, there is no voice at that moment of conception saying, ‘You can’t do that,’” he laughs. “All I’m hearing is voices saying, ‘That’s gonna be awesome!’ and ‘I can do that!’ I am always just trying to write the book I know how to write and, more importantly, books that I myself would like to read.”
Chabon’s seventh novel, “Telegraph Avenue,” is due out in September. Set in 2004 San Francisco, it’s his first full-length piece of fiction set in the present day since “Wonder Boys.”
“It was kind of great to walk out of my door in the morning and do research by going to the grocery store,” Chabon says of returning to contemporary subject matter. “It’s a lot easier than having to track down information about 10th century Azerbaijan.”
Yup, 10th century Azerbaijan. That was the setting of “Gentlemen of the Road,” the swash-buckling novel he wrote in serialized form for the New York Times Magazine in 2007.
His forthcoming and recently-released projects include the children’s book “The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man,” the screenplay for the Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation “John Carter,” a dramatic HBO series about Hitler-battling spies called “Hobgoblin,” and, oh yeah, that novel too.
“I don’t see any reason why my writing shouldn’t be as diverse as my reading,” he says of his widely cast imaginative net.
When we spoke, Chabon was in the middle of reading both an early George R.R. Martin science fiction book and Jaimy Gordon’s National Book Award-winning “Lords of Misrule.”
Regarding his work on the script for “John Carter,” the sci-fi Disney film with a quarter-billion dollar budget that broke even a month after its March release and suffered relentless anti-hype media coverage, Chabon says, “I’m proud of it. I think it’s a really good movie, a distinctly crowd-pleasing movie. … The story of the failure of ‘John Carter’ was written long before the movie ever opened and anything that presented evidence to the contrary of that narrative was ignored.”
Considering his many projects beyond novels, some might call Chabon distracted from the fiction his fervent fans want him writing. But reading his other stuff is so flat-out fun, it’ll convince you Chabon can do anything he wants.
Take the personal essays in his 2009 collection, “Manhood for Amateurs,” which center on fatherhood, childhood, and play.
His essays are as fulfilling as reading Hemingway on Paris or Twain on war — only Chabon is writing about Legos, the “Planet of the Apes” TV spinoff, and “the artistic possibilities of crap.” He manages to write about his many obsessions and idiosyncracies without stumbling into the cutesy pop-criticism territory, and without pushing his fandom to the shark-jumping, reference-happy inanity of late “Family Guy.”
He pulls off a similarly thrilling high-wire act in his fiction, demonstrating that pop culture and great works of art are not mutually exclusive — and “entertainment” doesn’t have to be a pejorative term. His lushly crafted and clever prose, in itself, is nothing if not entertaining.
“Kavalier and Clay,” for instance, is a nostalgic love letter to comic books and 1940s New York, and also a heartrending portrait of a pre-World War Two Jewish refugee. Somehow it is as entertaining and plot-driven as a guilty beach read, yet moving and edifying as, say, Tolstoy.
The underlying optimism in his work can be alarming. There’s no hipster sneer to be found in it. No jaded Gen X cynicism.
He writes with a subtle humanity, and argues that the best literature — Shakespeare, Joyce, and Faulkner, for instance — can actually enhance a reader’s ability to be a human.
“What makes those writers great to me is their capacity for forgiveness that runs right alongside of their sharp-eyed acuity, of their condemnation and criticism of human beings for their weaknesses and foibles,” he says. “You feel that the eye of the author, no matter which character it’s turned on, it uncovers this little pocket of whatever stuff that our humanity is constructed out of.”
Anyone who has read Michael Chabon knows that feeling.