Revealing Open Secrets: An Interview with Charles Baxter


Interviewed by Maurice Mierau

Charles Baxter is a distinguished and prolific American fiction writer, critic, and teacher. He is the Edelstein-Keller Professor at the University of Minnesota. Gryphon: New and Selected Stories will be published in January.

Alice Munro wrote the following about his short fiction: “Charles Baxter’s stories have reminded me of how broad and deep and shining a story can be, and I am grateful.”

Baxter has published four books of short stories, and his five novels include First Light (1987), National Book Award finalist The Feast of Love (2000), and most recently The Soul Thief (2008). Anyone who writes or teaches fiction would be well-advised to acquire Baxter’s two books of essays, Burning Down the House (1997), and The Art of Subtext (2007). The essays are informal and jargon-free, but filled with canny destabilizing of the received wisdom on fiction.

Photo by Keri Pickett

Recently Baxter talked with TWR editor Maurice Mierau:

When you were in Winnipeg this fall, doing a talk at the public library’s Carol Shields Auditorium, you mentioned a brief correspondence you had with Carol Shields. And Alice Munro wrote a wonderful blurb for your book Believers. So obviously you have some contact with Canadian writers. What do you think are some of the commonalities and differences between Canadian and American fiction? And is there something about the Midwest that shows up on both sides of the border?

The commonalities that you mention seem to be most apparent between Canadian writers and writers of the American Midwest, where taciturn citizens are still the norm. To appropriate a phrase from Alice Munro, Americans in the Midwest are quite fond of open secrets. This taste for secrecy and a distrust of eloquence make the writer’s job quite challenging: you have characters in your stories who distrust drama and yet create it without wishing to. Along with that goes a sensibility that doesn’t regard any community larger than a town or a neighbourhood as being particularly meaningful. In America, Sherwood Anderson was the great originator of this sort of fiction. Writers in the American South work out of a completely different tradition. Another Canadian writer I have admired enormously is Timothy Findley. When I was teaching in Detroit, I invited him down to give a reading there, and he gave one of the greatest readings (from The Wars) I’ve ever heard or ever expect to hear. Of course he was trained as an actor. He said, if I remember correctly, that it was the first reading he’d ever been invited to give in the States.

One of the often-remarked and remarkable things about your work is how fluidly you move between the short story and the novel. As a practitioner in both genres, and a critic, what do you make of the ongoing poor-cousin status of the short story with respect to the novel? Does the larger audience for the novel frustrate you?

Oh, well. The short story is an ineradicable art form, and I grew up reading short stories and loving their precision, so I’m not about to say goodbye to the form now. I still think that the short story is the best format we have for dramatizing the lives of characters who don’t make plans and who are scary and impulsive. They do things right in front of you, right now, almost without thinking. And after all, if writers like Alice Munro and William Trevor and Deborah Eisenberg are still producing short stories, the form isn’t dead, not by a long shot. Young writers in the States are quite enamoured of the form, probably thanks to the writers I’ve mentioned and younger writers like George Saunders and Lorrie Moore.

We’ve started TWR largely because of a concern that book reviewing in this country is getting squeezed to death in newspapers and marginalized more than ever in the mainstream electronic media. As a result, literary awards have taken the place of informed discussion about books, and so the awards and subsequent attention happen in a rather mindless vacuum. This trend seems exactly the same in the US. You’re a fiction writer who has also written numerous reviews and essays. Do you see hopeful signs on the horizon for book culture, or is the world really going to hell?

The only hopeful sign I’ve noticed is that young people who love books are quite pugnacious about it. They’ll say, “Go away with your stupid gizmos. I’m reading.” Reading has therefore become an alternative culture and has a certain grungy glamour to it. Books have taken on a steam-punk ethos; reading a book is like getting a tattoo: it separates you out from the crowd. Actually, on second thought, I’d say that getting a tattoo does not separate you from the crowd the way reading a book does. As long as there are people who are passionate about books, a culture of book reviewing is sustainable. But if no one remains passionate about these works, it’ll be gone, pronto.

David Shields’s much-discussed book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto asserts more than once that fiction “has never seemed less central to the culture’s sense of itself.” How do you think fiction writers should respond to this sense of obsolescence?

By writing books that define the culture in a way that no one has before. Catch-22 caught something that was crazy in the culture of warfare. I actually think that some writers are still defining our moment for us. George Saunders, whom I mentioned earlier, has written stories in which the United States has been transformed into a giant sleazoid capitalist theme park. But it already is a capitalist theme park; he was just the first to notice the sideshow quality. That business of vision is something David Shields doesn’t talk about very much.

In your essay “Unheard Melodies” (from The Art of Subtext) you talk about how writers need to pay “close attention to inattentiveness,” to the ways we ignore each other. How do you think what you call “the toxic levels of daily sense information,” especially from the electronic world, are changing fiction and the audience for fiction?

People find it harder to concentrate on a single phenomenon for a long period of time. Stories and novels are getting shorter. Along with that goes a taste for fantasy materials, which is the way that myth reasserts itself in a secular society. But the trouble is that kids who spend all day face-to-face with screen culture don’t get interested all that often in books. It’s as if they’re brain-damaged and addled. But even kids brain-damaged by screens seem to be able to read the Harry Potter books. That’s a good sign.

You spent many years directing a prestigious MFA program in creative writing at the University of Michigan, and now teach writing at the University of Minnesota. In Canada, where MFA programs are few, there is still much skepticism about the idea of teaching creative writing. What do you think is valuable about such programs? What are their weaknesses?

What’s valuable about these programs is that you can sit around talking about the form and content of stories and novels. You can pass on what you know about constructing scenes and dialogue and exposition and plot. You can read great books together. The weakness of these programs is that at times they function like Ponzi schemes, encouraging people who are talentless to believe that they can write and build a career for themselves in a commercially declining art. But Americans, with their pragmatic bent, love these programs. Americans are great believers in how-to-ism. How to do this, how to do that. The Canadian tradition is a bit more skeptical about the whole business. In Germany, creative writing is an academic laughingstock.

In your recent review of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom in the New York Review of Books, you initially express admiration for his celebrated 2001 novel, The Corrections, but then say that Franzen writes “as if literary modernism and experimental postmodernism had never occurred.” That doesn’t sound like a compliment. But why should fiction grapple with modernism and the postmodern?

Well, Arnold Schoenberg, the inventor of 12-tone procedures, once said that there was still plenty of good music to be written in the key of C major. There are plenty of good novels still to be written in traditional forms. The question is whether you can really get the excitement of contemporary thought and feeling in to your text if you use absolutely standard techniques from the nineteenth century. I’m of two minds about this. On certain days, I think you simply can’t write a good book if you pretend that Joyce and Proust and Mann and the rest of them never happened. At the same time, I have a big bookshelf of experimental novels that are terrible by almost any measure. Technique is only a tool of expression, and what finally matters is what you have to say. My objection to Franzen’s novel is not its traditionalism but its schematic form.

One of your many gifts as a writer, it seems to me, is how you treat sex and love. An example is this sentence from your story “Kiss Away”: “When she came the first time, a window shade flew up in her mind, and she could see all of her feelings waiting to be touched and moved, like passengers in a bus station.” What do you think makes fiction an art form that can deal plausibly with sex?

Good fiction supplies you with the combination of inward feeling and outward descriptive action. You can’t get the inward feeling in a movie or in any other manifestation of screen culture without using a voice-over to tell us what the character is feeling, and voice-overs rarely work in movies; they’re clunky. That sentence you cited, by the way, was once quoted on a young woman’s blog to illustrate that in fact I did NOT know what I was talking about when it came to sexual matters. Maybe so. But the sentence merely asserts that lovemaking can be revelatory, and then the sentence provides a metaphor for the revelation. In any case, no one wants to read about sex simply as an activity that people engage in; they want to read about it as a manifestation of a person’s character. That’s the only reason for including a sex scene in a book: so that we find out more about a certain person under certain circumstances. It’s always a question whether a writer should include such scenes, because they violate a character’s right to privacy. Sometimes you can show some quality in a person by including such a scene, and you can’t get it anywhere else.

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Maurice Mierau

Maurice Mierau is editor of The Winnipeg Review. His new book of poems, Autobiographical Fictions, is just out with Palimpsest. His previous book, Detachment: An Adoption Memoir, was recently shortlisted for the 2016 Kobzar Literary Award.