Michael Chabon on literature as entertainment

In an age of mass-produced, market-tested media products, the word “entertainment” has gained a heavily negative connotation among many serious devotees of the arts. Literature, for example, is expected to be well-crafted, edifying, moving, sophisticated, profound, and so on—whereas mere crass entertainment is to be left to the reality TV shows and mass market paperbacks. Or such is Michael Chabon‘s contention in a recent piece in the LA Times.

Of course, we’re now in an era in which academics hold conferences on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and rock n’ roll is treated with a studious reverence that would make Theodor Adorno turn over in his grave. Fans of highbrow cultural products are increasingly likely to also dig comic books, television shows, and gossipy blogs. And the walls between independent and mainstream have also become increasingly porous: Chabon himself publishes with both a conventional corporate house and also with McSweeney’s.

So, I think Chabon is more closely describing an attitude of generations recently past. But: he does all the same do a very good job of articulating some of the underlying reasons why the kids these days have mostly stopped worrying and learned to love entertainment.

Most notably: Chabon does a good job of unpacking exactly why people might turn up their noses at entertainment. He points out that there’s a kind of guilt-by-association here: because the mainstream entertainment industry produces seemingly infinite numbers of trashy, exploitative reality shows for every rare masterpiece like The Wire, it’s hard for us not to be suspicious of the thrill of pleasure, when we’ve become so accustomed to experiencing it only in debased, degraded, hollowed-out forms. And though Chabon doesn’t mention this, I think it might also be the case (for Americans, at least) that there’s still some lingering cultural Puritanism in operation here: we just can’t quite get over the sense that there’s something bad about enjoying ourselves. And then on top of that there’s some American capitalistic pragmatism, too: if we’re not working, we’re wasting our time, and the pleasure of entertainment sure doesn’t feel like work.

Chabon doesn’t explicitly mention the fact that consuming highbrow cultural products often bears some relationship to class and status: that there might be some sociopolitical underpinnings to why some folks gravitate toward NASCAR and others to Proust. That said, I don’t think there’s anybody out there who actually reads all 1.5 million words of À la recherche du temps perdu solely for the sake of impressing the neighbors. (If that’s their only intention, they’ll just buy the fanciest leatherbound edition they can find and leave it untouched on the shelves.) Education, status, class, and past experience no doubt all play roles in shaping our tastes—but in all cases, pleasure is a big part of what all of us are after. Alluding to Kafka’s famous saying (“A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul”), Chabon writes:

But in the end — here’s my point — it would still all boil down to entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure. Because when the axe bites the ice, you feel an answering throb of delight all the way from your hands to your shoulders, and the blade tolls like a bell for miles.

We’re always going after pleasure and entertainment in art: we just sometimes define those terms too narrowly. Chabon explains this as a reaction to the cheapening, deadening effects of mass produced culture; I’d say that’s part of it, and part of it you can blame on class and the Puritans. But in any case: this idea—that the experience of art should be pleasurable, period, regardless of its lowbrow or highbrow origin—is exactly why most younger readers and viewers don’t generally lose much sleep over the debate Chabon wrestles with here. And it also no doubt at least in part explains Chabon’s great popularity with the McSweeney’s set, and with readers in their 20s: his books are very sophisticated and literary, and give off many highbrow signals, but they’re also unabashedly entertaining, and frequently take on themes, characters, settings, and situations (comic books, detectives, etc.) that in years past might have been excluded from highbrow literature. So: there’s nothing in Chabon’s argument here that I disagree with—but the battle being fought here has already been won.


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