The Professor of Introductions

Accidentally I’ve been reading a lot of Michael Chabon. He slipped an introduction into a 50-year-old book on Vikings that I read, and he offered the preface to a 40-year-old book of Norse myths that I received as a gift. The dude likes Vikings, apparently. So do I. But I didn’t realize I’d have to go through Michael Chabon—author of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, of all people—to find them.

Of course there’s a tradition of classic books receiving critical introductions by expert scholars. I have an Oxford edition of A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne at my desk, to pull a random example. It’s been edited, with an introduction and notes, by Ian Jack, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Cambridge, and Tim Parnell, lecturer in English at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. They sound like worthy fellows—partly because I’ve never heard of them. I don’t expect to recognize the names of the literary experts who specialize in the second-best book by the author of Tristram Shandy. Do you?

And yet my copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths is introduced by one of the most notable authors of our time. (I don’t even know who d’Aulaire is.) Michael Chabon isn’t offering a critical exegesis. In his introduction to the other book—The Long Ships by Frans Gunnar Bengtsson—he reflects on how a dear aunt gave him The Long Ships when he was a boy, and he’s loved it ever since. It’s not an introduction so much as a gushing, 1,176-word blurb. See for yourself—it’s posted at The Paris Review.

All I’m saying is, Michael Chabon is branding himself. He’s the Viking guy, among other things. Just like Jonathan Lethem, who provides the introduction to A Meaningful Life by J. L. Davis, is the Brooklyn guy. And Jonathan Franzen, who translated and introduced Spring Awakening, is the German literature guy. You could have guessed as much by reading each author’s work. But they’re reinforcing their brands by putting their stamp on other people’s work, too. Often it’s a fairly weak stamp—just a note to say the famous author has been here before you. And it doesn’t seem to matter that the books they’re endorsing don’t sell nearly as many copies as their own work. It’s branding, baby.

But I would have read these Viking books anyway, with or without the author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh to approve them. And I kind of wish they started with an introduction by Olaf Olaffson, Professor Emeritus of Skaldic Poetry at the University of Svalbard, you know?

- Brian Hurley

2 Comments

Filed under Hooray Fiction!

2 responses to “The Professor of Introductions

  1. brianhurley

    With the exception of Franzen, all the books I mentioned are published by New York Review Books. Other famous authors who’ve supplied introductions for obscure NYRB books include Dave Eggers, Joyce Carol Oats, Colm Tóibín, Ursula K. Le Guin, Toni Morrison, Michael Cunningham, Rick Moody, Jane Smiley, Jhumpa Lahiri, George Pelecanos, and Benjamin Kunkel. But NYRB isn’t the only one turning a traditionally academic feature into a publicity tool. The Best American series uses a similar cast of celebrities (including Michael Chabon, again) to fill the guest editor spot at each of their volumes. The book benefits from an association with a famous name, and the famous author gets to leave their mark on the work of up-and-coming writers. Branding!

  2. Mike

    One interesting fact about vikings, and four interesting facts about other things:

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