Ornament and Commodity in Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon is one of America’s most acclaimed literary authors. His first novel was published when he was 25 years old, his third novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, winning him the Pulitzer Prize in 2001.

Michael Chabon's latest novel, Moonglow (2016) is a "family saga" made up of people and situations that wouldn't be out of place in almost any other piece of American literary realism. Like all of Chabon's books, the novel is primarily a character-driven one: a sequestered navigation of the lives and sensations of the characters it presents. Chabon was an excellent representative for the literary culture industry when he appeared at Powell's on the first Friday in December to read from the novel. Chabon spoke to a sizable, standing room only crowd, surrounding Chabon at the lectern. Powell's staff members stood nearby, taking breaks to bear witness to the reading. Excepting the grey plume of hair atop his head, Chabon's presence was more or less quotidian. The plume was the signifier of a younger man, carefree and bordering on insolence; mixed with the grey it was the signifier of a man who thinks he is younger than he is. It was the sort of plume that would distract someone seated a few rows back from him in a movie theater. Chabon brimmed with an élan that is becoming in a lecturer while looking notably more attenuate than the photo on his Wikipedia page. His voice was mellow and high-pitched, reminiscent of the squeals emitted by air conditioners and CD players. It seems probable that in his private life he is a very nice man, if a bit cold. Chabon read from a portion of his book where a character he created goes to a public library in Baltimore.


In other words, Michael Chabon confided in his audience, an audience whose members largely resembled the speaker in their age and their appearance. A crowd of symmetrically-minded individuals is a consolation for a writer like Chabon who has tackled their philosophical questions on the page, as it is a tacit suggestion that the questions that they have asked are at least marginally interesting ones. As an added benefit for attending the reading, the audience is permitted to pose cordial questions in person to the author, after the reading, as if they were a Greek Oracle.

The writer, after commencing their tour of public appearances, slowly becomes amalgamated to the map of fiction they’ve invented for a crowd. The activity of writing, if returned to, becomes a simulation of the activity it once was. In some sense, all future novels completed by the author shall be replies to questions they anticipate being asked in interviews. The anxiety of this cycle, while inimical to an author’s artistry, assists in securing the viability of the author’s brand, as well as the status of the novel as highly commercial.

Products manufactured by the literary culture industry, such as Moonglow, deploy tactics intended to maximize financial gains from a smaller, yet thoroughly homogenized, audience. Echoing the economic model which cable television first brought to public notice, the literary culture industry secures discrete channels of communication— NPR's Fresh Air interview program is an example—to broadcast its goods.

Language is a city, with byways and outposts, some logical and some lacking all reason whatsoever, built at every point in its history. You may also imagine language as a building, where every floor is necessarily constructed upon another built in the past. In this paradigm,  writers like Michael Chabon are individuals spitting disinterestedly from a seven-hundredth-story window. You can also imagine him as an expensive coffee shop at the end of a cul-de-sac. The docility and political inaction among literary culture agents is deemed indicative of its liberality and rationality by its members; yet also reflects a larger tendency of docility present in all industrial consumers of culture.

Chabon’s Wikipedia Photo

photo by: Charlie Reiman, reproduced under Creative Commons license

Like a Commercial Washer: the Literary Culture Industry Operates Optimally When Adjusting the Author to an Anxiety-Inducing Double Rinse and Spin Permanent-Press-Release Cycle