Michael Chabon made it almost acceptable to enjoy comic books. Set during and around World War II, the Berkeley author's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay introduces a pair of talented cousins who develop their drawing and writing skills into careers in the then-emerging comics industry. Although gosh knows how many doctoral theses about Spiderman and Archie have been written in the past seven years, genre fiction — comics, science fiction, fantasy, romance, horror, and thrillers — still gets a bad rap from serious intellectuals, Chabon argues in his essay collection Maps and Legends, published in May 2008. That prejudice is one of the main topics that Chabon will discuss with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre (2025 Addison St., Berkeley) on January 5. The discussion is a benefit for Park Day School, a progressive private K-8 in Oakland whose administrators wish to expand the campus and increase scholarships.
"As a lad, I was an enormous reader of science fiction, and throughout my life I have read mystery stories by the gallon," says Carroll. "I have the new P.D. James on my nightstand as we speak." He has been conducting discussions to benefit the school for more than a year now; past guests have included Chronicle colleague Leah Garchik and Plan B author Anne Lamott. A future discussion with drummer Kelly Takunda Orphan will include a concert. Carroll points out that Chabon waded further into genre waters with another novel, 2007's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, set in a speculative Sitka, Alaska, in which Jewish refugees settled after World War II when Israel failed to become a state. "It's basically a detective story, but it's set in an alternate universe, so it's also a science-fiction story," says Carroll. He muses that he thoroughly relished Philip Pullman"s His Dark Materials trilogy: the novels The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, set in many alternate worlds where daemons and spectres mix it up with particle physics. But not until reading Chabon's essay about it in Maps and Legends did Carroll realize that "the entire series is a quarrel with John Milton and Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained." He laughs. "It's high literary criticism disguised as young-adult fiction."
As for the dialogue with Chabon: "One of my rules for these things is to listen — so the conversation tends to go where curiosity and random remarks take it." But as a starting point, "we need to establish that genre fiction does not get the credit it deserves for the areas it has opened up and the things it has done." Shazam! 7 p.m., $25. ParkDaySchool.org
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