"My passion and my ambition as a reader and a writer were forged in the smithy of genre fiction," writes Michael Chabon in Maps and Legends, a collection of essays that, at its best, takes us to that smithy, with Chabon as our blacksmith/tour guide. He delves into the subtleties and contradictions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries; he hashes out the interplay between the adventurous plot and humanist themes in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials; he wrestles with whether Cormac McCarthy's The Road is an epic, or a work of science fiction, or of horror, or all three. Here Chabon happily deals in mythologies of Norse gods and comic book heroes, and spotlights their influences on his own writing: As Maps and Legends continues, its author increasingly becomes a participant in these things that he loves to discuss, eventually detailing his own writing process, from his first novel's origins to his gleeful guilt at learning he's tricked some suckers into believing that Kavalier and Clay actually existed.
The strongest pieces in Maps and Legends are those where Chabon champions genre fiction—the very sort of writing that should need no defense, yet constantly finds itself kicked into the literary establishment's gutters. "Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story" kicks off Maps with a punch that the rest of the book never quite equals. "I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain," Chabon writes, shortly after implying that no serious writer should ever admit such a thing: "Entertainment has a bad name. Serious people learn to mistrust and even to revile it. The word wears spandex, pasties, a leisure suit studded with blinking lights." But Chabon reminds us that literature, at its versatile, entertaining best, is "a two-way exchange of attention, experience, and the universal hunger for connection."
Maps and Legends amounts to more than lists of Chabon's favorite stuff. These 16 pieces—collected from publications as diverse as Architectural Digest and The New York Review of Books—are deeply personal, but as a whole, Maps and Legends is a clever, relevant thesis on the inevitable intersections of pulp and literature. But perhaps more importantly, it is unceasingly, uniquely, and fantastically entertaining.