August 30, 2019KR BlogBlogLiteratureReadingWriting

The Possibilities of Criticism: An Interview with Charles Baxter, Author of Burning Down the House and The Art of Subtext

This post is the ninth in a months-long series that explores the topic of craft: what it is, how it has evolved, who has historically had access to it, and the ways it is used in the classroom today, among other things. This week’s interview is with Charles Baxter, author of Burning Down the House and The Art of Subtext and series editor of Graywolf’s Art of… series.

Charles Baxter is the author of eleven books, including most recently the story collections There’s Something I Want You to Do and Gryphon, as well as The Feast of Love. He teaches at the University of Minnesota and lives in Minneapolis.

Ruth Joffre: Every writer I’ve spoken to has forayed into the genre of craft books at a different time in life. I’m curious: what were the first craft books that resonated with you? What did they teach you (about craft and about craft books as a genre)?

Charles Baxter: As a young writer, I always avoided craft books. I never liked how-to manuals. They lead to the delusion that you can learn to be a writer (or a ball player or a dancer or a musician) by reading a book about it. I really didn’t like John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (although I might like it now, because it does have some good advice) because I thought it was narrow and censorious. As a young writer, I didn’t like being told what to do. As an old writer now, I still don’t. All the same, there are certainly matters of craft that a writer should know. When I was a young writer, the only craft book that I can remember reading was Gardner’s.

I thought I could learn how to write novels by reading and studying great novels, trying to see how they were put together.

What opened my eyes to the possibilities of criticism, practical and otherwise, was Robert Hass’s book about poetry, Twentieth Century Pleasures. His essays were smart, witty, sly, and passionate, and they didn’t tell anybody how to do anything. They did make judgments and suggested possibilities for poetry that you might not have thought of before, but they never lectured. He avoided that magisterial tone. The pleasure you take from an art, the joy in it, the occasional dismay, were absolutely clear in Hass’s essays. Academic literary criticism had become so stifling to me—and I had written some of it—that Hass’s model for criticism really woke me up, and many of the essays in Burning Down the House and The Art of Subtext are modeled on his, and one or two were modeled on Virgil Thomson’s earlier essays in The State of Music. Criticism should be a pleasure to read. It used to be. My essays don’t tell anybody how to do something a certain way; instead, they suggest certain possibilities: counterpointed characterization, request moments, rhyming action, things like that.

RJ: Your first craft book, Burning Down the House, was published by Graywolf in 1997. I’ve read that since then your opinion of the book has changed somewhat, not because of the content therein but because the approach is that of a younger version of yourself. How has time impacted your understanding of craft, both in general and in relation to the ideas presented in Burning Down the House?

CB: Sometimes the tone in Burning Down the House gets too brash. There’s a point in your life when you feel that you’ve earned the right to make generalizations, and you start to comment on the artistic landscape surrounding you. Gertrude Stein says somewhere that there’s a certain excitement in unsubstantiated generalizations, and that’s what I was after. These days, I’m not as self-assured as I once was, and I don’t sound like that anymore. Working all your life at one art makes you modest, or it should. You acquire both pride and humility. But I don’t disavow any of the ideas I had or the points I was trying to make in that book. These days, my critical voice is quieter; I work at a lower temperature.

RJ: In the essay “Defamiliarization,” you write, “We usually cannot recognize ourselves in a piece of fiction unless we have been taken down a path in which we find ourselves split and meet ourselves coming in the other direction.” This feels at once acutely accurate and extremely dangerous, because it speaks to a failure of empathy on the part of the reader, particularly when that reader is faced with a character from a different gender, race, class, or sexuality (for example) and cannot overcome that difference to see themselves in the character. As a writer and a reader, how do you combat this failure of empathy?

CB: I’m afraid I may have been misunderstood. What I said was, “We cannot recognize ourselves in a piece of fiction . . .” [my emphasis] My answer did not encompass what happens when we recognize others in a piece of fiction. We need to recognize people and characters other than ourselves. I don’t go looking for aspects or features of myself in novels and stories, although sometimes I may find something of myself that I recognize in someone else’s book. At my age, I’m bored with myself. What I do go looking for are moments in which I recognize (or learn) something I may have noticed in other people who are quite different from me in, as you list them, “gender, race, class, or sexuality.” I don’t necessarily identify with Anna Karenina, but I’m deeply interested and involved in and with her when I read the novel named after her. I don’t really identify with Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, but I love her just the same. I can love characters without identifying with them.

When we’re young, we often read books in search of characters with whom we can identify. When we’re older, we read books to acquaint ourselves with the great variety and wonder of the world’s people. Which is to say that I agree with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man that, as he says in the last sentence of his book, at the lower frequencies, he speaks for me. Sometimes, I feel that identification when reading a novel; often I don’t. Identification with characters is not the only game in town. I don’t have to identify with the characters in, say, Carmen Maria Machado’s stories to like and admire those stories or to learn something important about experiences and the world from those stories.

There’s an idea going around these days that men cannot or should not or may not find stories by or about women “relatable,” and that women cannot or should not or may not find stories by or about men relatable—and you can make this same claim about reading stories or novels by someone who is not of your race or social class or sexual preference, etc. This is a terrible idea; it is false, and it has bad consequences. It would mean that you can and should only read fiction written by someone who is exactly like you, with stories about people exactly like you, stories about the harms you have suffered. This would be an insult to the imagination. Go tell Shakespeare that he can’t write, or shouldn’t have written, about women? Goodbye Lady Macbeth, goodbye Juliet, goodbye Cleopatra, goodbye Rosalind, Ophelia, Desdemona, Goneril, Regan, and Cordelia, oh, and while you’re at it, goodbye Othello, because he’s a person of color. Goodbye Mr. Darcy, Victor Frankenstein, and the Misfit (because women wrote you), goodbye literature, and hello, Narcissism: please tell me a bit more about myself.

RJ: In the essay “Counterpointed Characterization,” you write that James Joyce’s “The Dead” may be “the greatest triangle story in English.” The triangle story is just one kind of story. Lan Samantha Chang talks about figure-eight stories, and Jane Alison talks about eight different patterns in her new book Meander, Spiral, Explode. What are some of your favorite story shapes? Can you point to a couple short stories that are particularly memorable because of their shape or structure?

CB: I like stories made up of micro-narratives told by the characters in the story, people who can’t stop talking. Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” is like that, and so is Carver’s “Where I’m Calling From.” Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” and Antonya Nelson’s “The Control Group” are like that. These stories are also request stories: “Please do something for me, and please do it sooner rather than later.” Kawabata’s stories have very unusual structures, and so do Katherine Anne Porter’s. There’s an infinite variety of story structures.

RJ: In The Art of Subtext, you relate an encounter you had with a friend who had recently broken up with her boyfriend and kept retelling the story. You write, “She was in such pain that she wasn’t listening to herself. Unable to monitor her own monologues, she couldn’t remember what she had already said.” This seems to me to be the experience of trauma (and, perhaps, of psychosis): getting stuck in a loop, being unable to escape the same finite narrative. As a writer, how do you navigate this traumatic loop? How do you balance being true to the experience and knowing that it will impact the reader’s ability to enter or follow the narrative?

CB: Usually when you treat a closed system like trauma (or buried family secrets) in a story, you need to bring in an outsider character who doesn’t know what’s going on and needs to find out. Closed systems require outsiders if the story is going to be told. The insiders don’t need to tell the story—except maybe to an investigator or a therapist, who plays the role of the outsider—because insiders already know what the story is.

RJ: In The Art of Subtext, you write that certain characters (what you call “hyper-vigilant observers,” people whose desperation has driven them to be abnormally attentive) are “beyond plot.” This is a fascinating concept to me and would seem to contradict your advice in Burning Down the House to position characters in such a way as to force them to act and get themselves into “interesting trouble.” How do you reconcile these two? Can you point to specific books or characters you would classify as “beyond plot”?

CB: In stories that are beyond plot, the situation simply intensifies until something or someone breaks. Hyper-vigilance is required when the world is untrustworthy and unpredictable. Unpredictability is worse than outward malignity, because at least you can prepare for malignity; against unpredictability, you simply have to be vigilant. Paula Fox is one of the greatest modern writers whose subject is hyper-vigilance. You can see it at work in two of her novels, Desperate Characters and The Widow’s Children. She got to this subject before it became a therapeutic cliché. You can also see it in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The narrator and protagonist of that book has to learn to be on his guard against the weirdness of white people (and some African-Americans, too). The process in these books—not the plot—involves the central character getting wised-up to what’s going on.

RJ: As the series editor for the Art of… books published by Graywolf, you’ve had the opportunity to help shape not only the genre of craft books but also the discussion of craft itself within the literary community. This position comes with both great authority and great responsibility. Does that impact the way that you approach the work of being series editor? What are some of the key concerns you keep in mind with each book?

CB: My central concern for those books was that they should be well-written. The play of thought and feeling about craft shouldn’t be a drag. You should feel enlivened and inspired when you finish reading a book in the Art of . . . series. You shouldn’t feel as if you had to take a trip to the principal’s office. You shouldn’t feel as if you’ve had to submit to a lecture. One of my colleagues at the University of Minnesota once said that the criticism in the series wasn’t “professional.” Yes, exactly right. Thank God.

RJ: In addition to being an author and editor, you’re also a respected teacher and have been on faculty at the University of Minnesota since 2003. In that time, you’ve taught many students, including undergraduate and graduate students. Does your approach to teaching craft vary based on the demographics of your students? Understanding that women and people of color are underrepresented in literature in general and craft in particular, what steps do you take to ensure everyone is included in discussions of craft?

CB: For the most part, issues of craft and form are color-blind. You have to choose your examples from a wide range of books, and you have to include under-represented authors—women and people of color, as you say—but that’s not a problem for me. I love to do that. My approach to teaching craft doesn’t vary that much depending on the audience, unless the students I’m talking to don’t seem to understand what I’m saying. In 99% of the cases, however, they do understand.

RJ: Finally, what are you working on now?

CB: A novel called The Sun Collective, about anarchic local political action in a time of widespread political despair.