Friday, November 27, 2009

Michael Chabon writes last column for Details Magazine

Michael Chabon has written his last column for Details Magazine.

There are far sexier pictures of him at Esquire, and at (not making this up) Jew of the Day and  (where I got very distracted by the kosher goodies they're reviewing for the holidays, especially these Bequet Caramels with sea salt), but I have no idea how liberally they do or don't share photos. So, what was I saying?

He also writes about pie (not for a living, just incidental to whatever else he happens to be writing). He talks about pie. At readings, he'll tell the audience "Put me in a building with pie, and I will find it." The New York Times also has a sexy Chabon pic and equally sexy pie narrative.  (As much as I would like to pass off pie-for-breakfast as a once-a-year post Thanksgiving treat, c'mon, who're we kidding?)

I only explain his bona fides in such detail because even though I think of him (and other Pulitzer-Prize winners) as household names, sometimes his name still gets a blank stare when I bring it up — which is pretty often. In fact, the best conversation I ever had about Michael Chabon was over a game of pool with Chris Offutt's (then-) 12-year-old son, Sam — who was fully versed in his work, though I don't remember how it came up. I think I'd mentioned Wonder Boys. (And I wasn't really shooting pool; I was just watching Sam while we waited for his Dad to finish a reading.)

It was only because of the holiday at all that I had enough time to catch up on some pie and the October issue of Details (which I always steal at my hair appointments, with the specific goal of reading Michael Chabon — though it isn't really stealing; I always say I'm taking it). The title "Curtain Call," clued me in that he was finishing up.

I didn't even realize til today that The New York Times had posted an excerpt of his latest non-fiction last summer, Manhood for Amateurs, which is about as close as you'll get to the real thing online. Details has no search engine to speak of. Chabon took down his own site awhile back, and he most definitely doesn't blog and tweet. (Though his wife does, and I follow her, but that's really an entirely separate blog.) He asks a beautiful question at the end of the excerpt that I find myself wanting to share with all the helicopter hyper-parenters I know (and I know a lot of them):
"Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?"

In the Details finale, he writes about the fact that his column, which he intended to focus on pop-culture failures, ended up instead ended up wrapped around his own own. He reflects on his first piece (which I remember well), describing his columnist-self as the "adult incarnation" of the 10-year old kid he'd been — trying and failing to start a comic-book club "sitting in a big, empty room behind a stack of newsletters" he had "painstakingly typed and photocopied, hoping," as he had "hoped in embarking on this monthly column, that somebody would show up." When he was 10, no one did. After 48 months at Details, with his "little newsletter of the Failure Club," he said "the results have at times seemed hauntingly and reassuringly familiar."

Not that the column wasn't successful (though it probably would've been moreso at say, Esquire... where they have searchable archives for Chrissake, and a slightly richer literary tradition) — just that over the course of four years, he said he listened "faithfully, for an echo that, in spite of Details' millions of readers, only rarely came."

Presumptuously, I just think he actually didn't listen that intently. Once something of an online pioneer, he took down his website when it got beyond the point where he had the time or interest to maintain it himself. His wife seems to embrace new media, but he doesn't. And that's fine (of course it's fine — he has the Pulitzer to prove it). It's just that that is where most of the listening happens these days. A ten-year old kid starting a comic-book club in Columbia, Maryland today would probably just (for better or worse) do it via facebook, or twitter, or a blog. And for better or worse, people would show up.

I'm glad now that I saved his August 2008 column "Teacher's Pet." Old-school. Ripped out of the magazine and tucked into my nightstand. It's more or less the obituary he wrote for Oakley Hall, the founding director of UC Irvine's MFA program in creative writing. Hall was the precursor of forefathers like Wallace Stegner and you can't get through the line at Starbucks in this town without tripping over a Stegner fellow.

Hall was the personification of the old Flannery O'Connor saying about young writers (asked if the Universities were stifling too many of them, O'Connor's response was that they weren't stifling enough).

Hall's response to a young-Chabon's draft of what would later become The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was "I just stopped giving a damn, Michael, because there is no story."

Chabon had a lot of understandable reactions, but his gut went with the correct one: "How could I have forgotten to tell a goddam story?"

What Hall taught him is something everyone who "fancies themselves a writer" has to learn, whether it's from a real professor in a real classroom, or through a more contemporary forum:
"I had come up against the hazard that awaits all writers — and at one time or another this includes most of us — who attempt to draw on their own experience as the basis for a work of fiction: Life is not a story, or at any rate, not a very good story. It has a beginning and an end, but they're always exactly the same. Mostly lives are just a whole bunch of middle, and really boring middle at that. You need to edit your life."

That process doesn't always happen enough in the great equalizing landscape of new media, where everybody suddenly has a microphone (and a blog, and a twitter, and fans on facebook) -- though a Pulitzer is still a pretty decent empirical yardstick. Still, and again: it is where the listening happens.

So I was sad when I got to that last line of Chabon's October column: "If you have been there, on the other end of the chasm, reading these words, hello. And good-bye."

I'm admittedly not the Details magazine demographic, but I have a feeling that chasm might've gotten uncomfortably narrow if they'd had the sense to actually run a photo of Michael Chabon alongside that Michael Chabon column for the past four years.

1 comment:

  1. I miss Chabon's essays. Only reason I can think of to actual read Details, or even to pick it up off the men's room floor at the Newark train station.