Inter Alia #1: Notes Toward a Sporadic Column

June 15, 2007 | 3 books mentioned 5 3 min read

I’m still working out my relationship with the blog as a critical organ… I guess, in a way, we all are. My thoughts, as visitors to this site may have noticed, tend equally toward the associative and the forensic. And yet, as a gift to you, the reader, I’d like to carve out a space in which I can share some of my less strenuously worked-out thoughts about the state of the art of fiction, and about culture more generally. (Lucky me, you’re probably thinking.)

These “ideas,” if I can call them that, may turn out on closer inspection to be completely bogus. And yet I’m feeling the need sporadically to turn the power of the blog as an instrument of feedback away from such epiphenomenal questions as, “Doesn’t John Colapinto seem weirdly peevish and thin-skinned this week” and toward less sexy developments that may still have some bearing on American culture a year from now… or a decade from now. That is, I propose to engineer a column on literature here at The Millions that advances beyond “link-bait,” even as it stays brief, casual, and interactive. I want to invite other writers working online, or stuck in the cubicle farm, to pick up on and respond to my less topical provocations, here or elsewhere, just as they might respond to a public gaffe by a former child star, or a book review in The New Republic.

I’d like to call this column “Inter Alia,” which is Latin for “among other things.” It will appear irregularly, like a meteor shower (or perhaps more likely, an unwanted guest). It will be about the length of what follows.

Inter Alia 1: Genre Madness

I’m going to raise a few questions, by way of experiment, about the continued relevance (or irrelevance) of notions of genre. It seems to me that the canonization of Philip K. Dick by the Library of America is a healthy development, and not just because it encourages snobs like me to consider speculative fiction alongside the main body of “realism” in our reading lives. It is also (I think) a manifestation of a long trend, with younger American writers gleefully sinking their teeth into the pop tropes of what was previously dismissed as “genre fiction,” and “genre” writers like Dick being hailed for their literary merit. (Let’s set aside for the sake of argument the high-low brinksmanship of Modernists like Joyce and Borges, similar in degree but different in kind). Kelly Link’s Small Beer Press, e.g., has done a lot to remind us that the postmodern leveling of “high” and “low” culture distinctions is not just political – it can be fun. Simultaneously, “Literary Fiction,” as Gerald Howard and others have argued, is moving from being a descriptor to being a genre in and of itself, with its own generic conventions. Call it lit-fic: a label no more a guarantor (or compromiser) of literary value than is “Western,” or “Sci Fi.”

coverMichael Chabon, it seems to me, is one of several 40-ish writers working toward a unified-field theory that harmonizes the best of lit-fic and its discontents. And yet, notwithstanding the wisdom of John Leonard, who suggested at a panel recently that getting too hung up on a book’s genre is a form of stupidity, I find myself struggling with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. On one hand, it’s a staggering feat of imagination, and often a great read. On the other, the stylized cliffhanger chapter endings (cribbed from gumshoe novels and children’s books and Saturday matinees), the sometimes cartoony dogpile of figurative language, the comic book characterization, and the almost parodically rococo plot seem to me to obscure the promise of a brilliant premise: an alternative postwar history that turns Alaska into a Jewish homeland.

This may be nigglingly small-minded, and would be a mere footnote to a longer review. Chabon clearly invested years in The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and has taken significant risks, and I think he deserves a wide readership. But I want to be honest about my reading experience. If this were a children’s book, like Summerland, or a melancholy lieder, like The Final Solution, I might swallow my resistance. But Chabon wants me to take to heart the adult sufferings of his hero, Meyer Landsman, and this particular book’s generic patrimony interferes with my ability to do so. I keep feeling dismissed from the suspension of disbelief, like Adam and Eve booted from the garden. I keep feeling reminded of the book qua book. Am I just hung up in an old-fashioned need to classify, as I once accused Michiko Kakutani of being? Or are there certain compositional principles underlying the successful genre mash-up, the way a mash-up mp3 requires that two songs have affinities of key and tempo? And if so, how do writers put them into practice? How do readers evaluate a genre-straddling book by the standards of one genre without using the other as an alibi? Discuss.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. I can't believe it! Someone who is on my wavelength about The Yiddish Policemen's Union!
    It's so wildly popular, and yet when I tried to read a pre-pub copy I couldn't get through it.
    I loved the idea, but the execution of it didn't, IMO, rise above the stereotypes it utilized to tell the tale.
    Glad I read your review.

  2. This is the first Chabon book I read and was disappointed. It just didn't do it for me. I slogged through it but did not find it enjoyable. Everyone who saw me reading it wanted to know how it was and told me they loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay so that is one of my summer reads.

  3. I would invite this guest into my house – not unwelcome at all. I can't weigh in on the latest Chabon book because I haven't read it yet – but your post makes me look forward to it, oddly.

    On the question of what makes an amalgam successful? Once I would have said it's like combining metals into an alloy – you don't want to know there were once components there, but post-modernism likes to let the seams show, it leaves a trail so you can trace the components and that creates a parallel narrative, which can be part of the fun. Some proposed "rules"
    – I want to feel like the professed artist actually created something of his or her own, which adds something new to the conversation. Even with an adaptation which is an amalgam of sorts, e.g.'Brideshead Revisited' for TV or Carlos Saura's 'Blood Wedding,' both of these adaptations were creations in their own right. They added something that the original creators hadn't said – they didn't just transfer the work from one genre to another (which is impossible, and when people claim to have done so they are being naive or untruthful)
    – I want to be able to admire how well the artist combined the elements on 2nd glance, but not on first
    – I don't want to feel like the artist is my student or my child bragging about their research
    – I want the act of combining to be it's own form – original, necessary to the expression, inevitable. Not just pieces that fit well.
    How's that for a start?

  4. I've got about 50 pages left, but I think that this book sits with Kavalier and Wonder Boys, Chabon's best. The landscape he creates, the language he invents, the tale he tells–it's all rich, lively and unlike anything else I've encountered (except for the parts that are consciously like something else, ie. the works of Chandler and Hammett).

    I wish the dazzling inventiveness didn't seem odd or off-putting, because that's what makes it so magical to me. The guy writes sentences that are simply jaw-dropping, and yet they all add up to sturdy, well-made paragraphs and chapters that are full of feeling and tell a great story.

    It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but if the concern is that this adventure is not worthy of Chabon's talents or the aims of literature, I really would disagree with that. It's the quality and success that precisely makes it literature, if that's at all important. At its core, it's a great story, and that's what I want out of any book, literature or not.

    Thanks for bringing up the topic.

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