Last night I saw Michael Chabon speak at the Harold Washington Library and he was wonderful. Funny, considerate, personable. Self-effacing, even. He spoke mostly about his third novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a Pulitzer winner and one of my top 5 favorite novels ever. I’m coincidentally halfway through rereading it for the second-and-a-half time, so this whole thing worked out pretty perfectly for me, timing-wise.
Chabon is 51 but could easily pass for 40. He took the stage dressed well in a silver-grey suit, polished black shoes, pink paisley shirt, and navy wool tie that bent askew all night. All the personality traits I mentioned above felt natural in his conversation, and probably they were, but occasionally he’d say something that sounded as if he’d said it in that exact way about a thousand times before, down to the emphasis on the second syllable of a drawn out last word. You could hardly blame the dude. This was not his first speaking engagement.
On my bike ride home I kept returning to a piece of advice my favorite English professor once gave me on how to achieve success in the world of academia. “Probably half of landing a university job, from your first fellowship to tenure, is looking like you belong. Start by getting some cooler glasses.” Professor Cohen is a deeply sarcastic man, but he wasn’t messing with me. Academia is less of a beacon on a hill than its gatekeepers would lead you to believe. No big surprises there, right? But that same superficiality extends into the broader literary world, and I have to wonder if some of Chabon’s success couldn’t be attributed to how fuckin’ cool he is. Same thing with guys like Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer. Talented writers to be sure, but they all dress and act the part. They look like they belong.
It sort of relates to a theory I have about movie stars. I think the formula for becoming a famous actor is pretty straightforward, actually. You just need to be really attractive and really talented. Lots of people are one of those or the other, and many among us are both to an extent. But if you’re super attractive and excellent at acting, then you have a pretty solid shot at becoming a movie star. There just aren’t very many people who chill out in the cross-section of that Venn diagram.
I think the formula might apply to becoming a famous writer. Or at least it applies more than we’d like to believe. Being handsomely bookish and self-deprecating are less important than raw talent and work ethic, but maybe the separation isn’t quite so chasmic.
I’m not complaining, for the record! I wasn’t blessed with Chabon’s salt and pepper curls, but I can look writerly enough to pass muster. I just don’t think we should pretend that the world is that much different on screen than it is on paper. Except when you’re reading novels.