I recently picked up a copy of Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends, a collection of essays from 2008 put out by McSweeney’s. The first essay in the collection is titled “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story.” Therein, the author of Summerland boils down literature to entertainment and “its suave henchman pleasure”, though he seeks to expand the definition of entertainment beyond “karaoke and Jägermeister, Jerry Bruckheimer movies, a Street Fighter machine grunting solipsistically in a corner of an ice-rink arcade” (13). For Chabon, entertainment, in regards to literature, ought to encompass “everything pleasurable that arises from the encounter of an attentive mind with a page of literature” (14). In summary, Chabon thinks (fictional) literature is essentially based in entertainment which is essentially based in pleasure. Suddenly thoughts of Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text come to mind. I don’t quite buy this hedonistic formula. I don’t read for pleasure. I read to learn and discover. So I either have to reject Chabon’s reductive distillation of literature to entertainment and the pleasure it brings with it, or perhaps I just need to reevaluate what Chabon means by pleasure, which lies at the core of his definition of entertainment above.
For instance, maybe learning is pleasurable in some non-conventional way. I’m edging toward being convinced that reevaluation is in order when Chabon writes: “The original sense of the word ‘entertainment’ is a lovely one of mutual support through intertwining. . . It suggests a kind of midair transfer of strength, contact across a void, like the tangling of cable and steel between two lonely bridgeheads. I can’t think of a better approximation of the relation between reader and writer” (15). So, literary entertainment concerns itself more with resolving loneliness through interconnection. This idea has risen to prominence as a definition of the “aim” of literature proffered by Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace in the 1990s, “a way of connecting, on relatively safe middle ground, with another human being”, as Franzen noted in his informal remarks at Wallace’s memorial service.1 Though I’ll take “loneliness antidote” over “pleasure provider” as a definition of literature, I’m still not convinced that classics the likes of Moby Dick and Oliver Twist can be reduced to that either.
Chabon feels that this connective capacity of literature, through which good entertainment originally operated, has been compromised by the passivity of contemporary so-called “entertainment.” In response, Chabon calls for a renewal of the two-way process of entertainment. In particular, he identifies a need for more engaging, diverse entertainment in the realm of short stories, which he feels have shriveled to a dry, homogenous desert of “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story” (18). I have to admit a bit of confusion at this point—does Chabon want reader-writer interaction, those lonely bridge heads straining to connect, or does he just want variety and diversity of form when it comes to entertainment?
His subsequent discussion of genre suggests that the latter is the case. What Chabon finds entertaining is a variegated, multi-dimensional set of stories. He goes on to reference Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller” in which the German Jew distinguishes between the fantastic “trading seaman [mariner, I would suggest as an alternative translation]” writers and the earthy, realistic “resident tiller of the soil” writers. In his love of diversity, Chabon finds this binary insufficient and forwards a whole new category for fiction’s finest—that of “tricksters”, those bewildering, pencil-wielding devils who toy with convention in a creative act of “play.” These writers explore the borderlands of intersection and interstice, speculating on how things meet. I’m surprised, though, that Chabon does not take the opportunity to connect (here a crucial word) the trickster’s preoccupation with connectivity back to the original definition of entertainment that he fetches from the linguistic graveyard back on page 15 of his essay. Could the trickster not only play in the borderlands but bring the reader in with him? Doing so, (however this might be conceived) might shock the reader out of the lull of contemporary entertainment-generated passivity. However, if such a task could be accomplished (and I think David Foster Wallace has come close in stories like “Good Old Neon”), I’ll still be left questioning whether connectivity, let alone pleasure, really is the point of literature anyway.
1More in line with Chabon’s account of literature, Franzen mentioned in a 2001 interview that “novels are about crossing the great gaps at the rather lonely center of one person to the rather lonely enter of another, but I’m not positive that’s a useful thing to do. It’s a pleasurable thing to do.” But will pleasure cut it when it comes to the task of the writer?