Asserting the Possibility of Fellowship in a World Built from Solitude

Wednesday, May 3, 2017
Book cover

"For true contentment, one must carry a book at all times."

~Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs

It makes sense that a collection of autobiographical essays by a Pulitzer prize-winning author would include a few thoughts on writing. The act of writing is far from the theme of Michael Chabon's book on family and gender roles, but comments on it are present. Aside from the quote above, two passages in particular speak to the process of artistic creation.

One is from "XO9," which is what his younger son called OCD when little. The essay is about a genetic tendency toward OCD in his family and the way it has presented itself in different people. Though not diagnosed himself, Chabon wonders about some of his own compulsive habits, not least of which is writing.

When I consider the problem-solving nature of writing fiction . . . it begins to seem to me that writing may be in part a disorder: sheer, unfettered XO9. Look at Borges with his knives and his tigers, or Nabokov with his butterflies, or Irving with his bears, or Plath with her camps and her ovens; look at every writer, writing the same damn story, the same poem, returning endlessly to the same themes, the same motifs, the same locales, the same lost summer or girl or father, book after book. "Why do you keep writing about gay men who are friends with straight men?" people want to know. "Why are bad things always happening to dogs in your books? What's with all the sky similes? Why did you use the word 'spavined,' like seventeen times in one novel?" Sometimes I try to come up with sensible answers to these questions, logical explanations for these recurring tropes, motifs, and phrases, but in truth there's only one honest answer that a writer in the grip of XO9 can give:

I can't help it.

Can you help it? Can you explain your recurring tropes, motifs, and phrases? Do you feel, as Chabon claims, a compulsion to write what you write, a compulsion that can't be satisfied by anything except writing what you must write? Is every writer at least a little OCD?

The other passage comes from the opening essay "The Loser's Club." In it, he considers the approach that Stan Lee took in writing his now famous comic books, from the very first one. "Lee behaved from the start as if a vast, passionate readership awaited each issue. . . . And in a fairly short period of time, this chutzpah . . . was rewarded. By pretending to have a vast network of fans, former fan Stanley Leiber found himself in possession of a vast network of fans." He couches this within a tale of failure, his own adolescent attempt to start a local comic book fan club. Nevertheless, he writes, even when failure is the most likely outcome, the act of artistic creation depends upon the assumption of consumers who will appreciate the outcome.

This is the point, to me, where art and fandom coincide. Every work of art is one half of a secret handshake, a challenge that seeks the password, a heliograph flashed from a tower window, an act of hopeless optimism in the service of bottomless longing. Every great record or novel or comic book convenes the first meeting of a fan club whose membership stands forever at one but which maintains a chapter in every city--in every cranium--in the world. Art, like fandom, asserts the possibility of fellowship in a world build entirely from the materials of solitude. The novelist, the cartoonist, the songwriter, knows that the gesture is doomed from the beginning but makes it anyway, flashes his or her bit of mirror, not on the chance that the signal will be seen or understood but as if such a chance existed.

And so, dear reader of this blog--of this particular post--you may not exist, now or ever, but we write this anyway on the chance that you do.

We can't help it.