Who’s Done More Damage to Fictional Narrative?


Or Richard Nixon? A passage from Charles Baxter‘s essay “Dysfunctional Narratives, or: ‘Mistakes Were Made'”:

What difference does it make to writers of stories if public figures are denying their responsibility for their own actions? So what if they are, in effect, refusing to tell their own stories accurately? So what if the President of the United States is making himself out to be, of all things, a victim? Well, to make an obvious point, they create a climate in which social narratives are designed to be deliberately incoherent and misleading. Such narratives humiliate the act of storytelling. You can argue that only a coherent narrative can manage to explain public events, and you can reconstruct a story if someone says, “I made a mistake,” or “We did that.” You can’t reconstruct a story—you can’t even know what the story is—if everyone is saying, “Mistakes were made.” Who made them? Everybody made them and no one did, and it’s history anyway, so let’s forget about it. Every story is a history, however, and when there is no comprehensible story, there is no history. The past, under these circumstances, becomes an unreadable mess. When we hear words like “deniability,” we are in the presence of narrative dysfunction, a phrase employed by the poet C. K. Williams to describe the process by which we lose track of the story of ourselves, the story that tells us who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act.

Baxter picks up that essay’s idea in a Q&A with the Prairie Schooner blog, updating his argument to include the current batch of presidential candidates. (Though didn’t this problem, to the extent it even qualifies as a problem, start with Laurence Sterne?)

A Parliament of Owls

There isn’t too much to disagree with on the surface of Charles Baxter‘s brief essay on book reviews in Fiction Writers Review, “Owl Criticism”: Amazon.com reviewers can be impossibly shallow, he asserts, while more credentialed reviewers are often only slightly better. “[Q]uite a few book reviews are worthless,” he writes. “They are made up of what I call Owl Criticism. With Owl Criticism, you have statements like, ‘This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.'”

But every critic performs a sort of owl criticism, including Baxter. After dismissing the reviews of Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom in the Atlantic and the New York Times as hyping the novel as either dull or a timeless masterpiece, Baxter points out what those reviews should have addressed: “the formal properties of Franzen’s novel—in the ways, for example, certain dramatic events duplicated themselves, or the instances of crucial scenes that Franzen chose not to present directly.”

The “formal properties” of a book are important, but those aren’t the only aspects of it worth reviewing. Neither the Atlantic‘s rant about the shift of American literature toward the drably quotidian or the Times‘ trumpeting of the novel’s political savvy were especially convincing, but they are reasonable positions from which to address the book. Indeed, it may be the sign of an interesting work of fiction that it can absorb all sorts of criticism, accommodate many owls.

“[A] good review, if it is to serve any purpose at all, has to take the trouble of telling us where a poem or a novel or a book of stories fits into our cultural life, and then has to tell us how its content is located in its form,” Baxter writes. It’s sensible advice, followed up by less sensible advice: Great book reviews “assert that a great precious object exists that you need to discover for yourself, because it will change your life.” Apart from echoing the kind of breathless tone common to the Amazon.com reviews that exasperate him, the statement implies that the best reviews are the positive ones, constrained by their proclamations of “formal and verbal” successes but courting worthlessness if they apply a different kind of filter.

Every good critic has a grip on the “formal and verbal properties,” sure, but every good critic is sick with prejudices as well. James Wood‘s owl, to pick one example, is hysterical realism (“this book has busy prose and lots of proclamations about how various social constructs conspire against us, and I don’t like busy prose and lots of proclamations about how various social constructs conspire against us”). It’s understandable that Baxter took a look at Amazon.com and despaired of where criticism (or precise writing in general) is going, but in complaining about the noise of empty criticism he dismisses much that makes criticism lively and valid as well.

Looking Back on Charles Baxter

My review of Gryphon, Charles Baxter‘s retrospective collection of short stories, appears in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. One point I make is Baxter stands alone among short-story writers—if it’s hard to find anybody he’s clearly influenced (Stuart Dybek, kinda), neither does his work evoke the names of influential writers who were around as he was coming up in the 70s and 80s (John Cheever, sorta). You can see shades of Breece Pancake in Wells Tower, or William Trevor in Yiyun Li, but Baxter is pretty much Baxter. Many of his characters have at least a touch of emotional (if not mental) instability, I write, and Baxter “has this territory to himself because it is so difficult to create—a lesser writer might take this material and apply the arid ironies of dirty realism or make these hard-luck characters unsympathetic.”

The stories in Gryphon work in large part because Baxter is so masterful at controlling tone—crucial in stories like these, where characters’ emotions shift rapidly. In “The Old Murderer,” a man is fixated is on his new neighbor, a recently paroled murderer, but he’s uncertain whether his interest is unseemly or a product of, as they say these days, an abundance of caution. He visits his sister and her partner to play cards (oh, how Baxter loves cards, standard deck and Tarot alike, little slips of fatalism), and they wrap up with this exchange:

“Oh, I forgot to tell you. A paroled murderer has moved in next to me.”

“Is he nice?” Kate asked.

“I don’t know,” Ellickson told her. “I can’t tell yet. He works all day in his garden and then he disappears.”

“A murderer next door?” Irena said, putting away the deck of cards. “In Russia, this is not unusual.”

Following a series of scenes in which Ellickson is anxious about the man next door, this comes off as broad comedy: The faux-casual way he brings up the murderer, the absurd question Kate asks in response (which is the price he pays for being faux-casual), Irena’s own statement, which ends the section on a laugh line. But the little exchange also complicates the story, allowing the possibility of normalcy for this parolee and drawing a bright line under Ellickson’s obsession over him—two things that will make the story as heartbreaking as it is by the time the story ends.

One story I wish I could’ve found a way to neatly summarize for print is “The Cures for Love,” in which a classics scholar attempts to clear her head after a breakup by hopping a local bus in Chicago and taking it wherever it goes. She’s too much of an academic observer—and too aware of her heartbreak—to take much comfort in this aimlessness, though: “No one with a serious relationship with money rode a bus like this at such a time. It was the fuck-up express.” What she does take comfort in is Ovid’s poetry, which echoes in her head as she winds up at the airport to people-watch. When that trip proves to do more harm than good, she retreats again into Ovid, imagining his “I-know-it-all syntax and tone” retooled for her needs:

An airport! Didn’t I tell you,
to shun such spots? A city park on a warm
Sunday afternoon wouldn’t be as bad….

Thank you (he said)
for reading me, but for the sake
of your own well-being, don’t go there
again without a ticket.

By story’s end, she’s not much more stable than she was when she started—she’s still on the fuck-up express—but she at least has a better sense of her destination.

None of which is to say that Baxter is a comic writer, but he’s interested in human foibles in a way that avoids either somber judgment or satire. What’s fun about reading Gryphon start to finish, its stories arranged chronologically, is seeing how his skills grew and his characters grew up; the young parents and singletons of his early stories mature into divorcees and professionals, but they never lose that nagging feeling that something’s gone wrong in their lives. One of my favorite lines in the entire book comes from “Mr. Scary”: “With grown children of his own, and his own sorrows—his wife had pitched herself through a window eight stories up two months after learning that she had inoperable cancer—Randall had every right to be moody, or grumpy at times.” What a thing to stuff between em-dashes! Try to stuff, anyhow: The urge to push things away and the way they keep welling up regardless are trademarks of Baxter’s work, and he’s only gotten better at it as he’s gone along.

Links: Closing the Books

A list of my ten favorite books of 2010 is up at Washington City Paper, along with some prefatory notes about my frustration with many of the year’s “big” novels. You should do one of the nation’s finest alternative weeklies the kindness of your clicking on the link, but if you’re eager to cut to the chase, here’s the list:

1. Yiyun Li, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl
2. James Hynes, Next
3. Sara Marcus, Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution
4. Ander Monson, Vanishing Point
5. Dinaw Mengestu, How to Read the Air
6. Paul Auster, Sunset Park
7. Ruth Franklin, A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction
8. Stephen O’Connor, Here Comes Another Lesson
9. Mark Slouka, Essays From the Nick of Time
10. John D’Agata, About a Mountain

I filed the piece in early December, and since then I’ve come across a few titles that would make me consider retooling the list. Two deserve special attention. Stanford literary scholar Terry Castle‘s The Professor and Other Writings is an uproarious collection of personal essays that generally deal with such unliterary topics as shelter mags and Art Pepper, but mostly with a focus on the author herself (particularly in the extended title essay), and she never loses her intellectual rigor even at her most willfully unserious and self-deprecating. And Paul Murray‘s novel about life at an Irish private school, Skippy Dies, artfully merged the rich humor that emerges only when 14-year-olds are sniping at each other with the kind of pathos that emerges only when 14-year-olds are being themselves—which is to say, seeing a transformative moment in nearly every interaction. The very bulk of Skippy Dies somewhat wrecks my thesis about being frustrated with big books. But my main complaint about the year’s doorstoppers is that they were built on a punishing number of archetypes; a few of those creep into Skippy Dies too, but the boys and girls it chronicles are generally unburdened of such baggage.

A few more notes and links before we close out the year:

The Chicago Sun-Times gathered up a host of suggestions for its year-end books feature, in which I also recommended Li.

Not on my list: David ShieldsReality Hunger, but for Jim Hanas it raised two very good questions: “1) What sort of stories, if any, can only be told with the written word? and 2) What stories, if any, can only be told as fictional narratives?” (via)

Luc Sante on reviewing Shields: “When you review a book that’s contentious, people respond to the reviewer as if he had written the book.”

Another book I’ve read over the holiday break is Robert Alter‘s Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, which investigates commonalities of style between the King James Bible and the works of Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Saul Bellow, Marilynne Robinson, and Cormac McCarthy. Alter’s discussion of the King James Bible’s influence on the latter three authors isn’t as convincing as I’d like, and as David E. Anderson writes, “his basic case, that the King James Bible determined ‘the foundational language and symbolic imagery’ of the wider American culture, has not been made.” But he registers a spirited defense of reading an author through his or her style instead of through theory.

Speaking of Bellow, Andrew O’Hagan writes of his Letters: “they show an altogether smaller man, an underman, who struts his way through a million miniature resentments and hassles, only to land the reader, again and again, very far short of the novelist’s great capacities. He’s not even a Herzog, stewing in his own deepness, but a whiner, itching and scratching with agitation.”

Looking ahead to 2011, I recommend Charles Baxter‘s forthcoming omnibus collection of short stories, Gryphon, which comes out next month. He answers a few questions at Fictionaut. (via) And at Lapham’s Quarterly, he considers P.T. Barnum‘s autobiography, a “rather dull and ill-written primer on selling shoddy goods.”

Ruth Franklin has a few thoughtful reading resolutions for 2011.

A brief history of the novel-long sentence.

Cynthia Haven laments the absence of Menlo Park’s Kepler’s on a recent list of the country’s best U.S. bookstores. I’ve never been, but I can second her recommendation of Paperback Dreams, a documentary about the death of the independent bookstore in which Kepler’s is prominently featured.

A host of writers are organizing a benefit on February 6 to help the family of Beautiful Children author Charles Bock, whose wife, Diana Colbert, is hospitalized with leukemia. Various big-name authors will put their services up for auction; Gary Shteyngart, for instance, will “buy you a hot dog and flatter the pants off you.” You needn’t be in New York (or wish to have a famous author buy you a hot dog) to make a donation. (via)

“Going through the gate still has certain benefits, but it’s no longer the only way for authors to get to where they want to go,” a publishing consultant tells the Los Angeles Times in a story about how publishers’ gatekeeping status is eroding—though the examples the story cites are all authors who did well enough thanks to those gatekeepers that they can afford to reject that model and shift to one more to their liking. Unknown authors can do it too, yes, but it’s a lot of work, and tends to lead back to those “gatekeepers” (which, again, is not a four-letter word). More from Mike Cane.

On the key distinction between American fiction set in the east and the west.

According to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cane author Jean Toomer was a black man passing as white, “running away from a cultural identity that he had inherited.”

Michael Chabon talks with the Atlantic about his Fountain City excerpt in McSweeney’s.

If you’re here intentionally, you likely already have heard that Arts & Letters Daily creator Denis Dutton has died. Reason‘s Nick Gillespie has a succinct appreciation that gets at why the site mattered.

A win-win situation: The Washington Post reports on a new collaboration between libraries and publishers in which libraries get advance copies of young-adult books and readers deliver feedback on them to the publishers. According to the Post story, the young readers enjoy the thrill of getting hold of books before they go on sale, and what’s more it cultivates an enthusiasm for critical thinking and reviewing. Wait, scratch that: “[T]he dream that motivates some reviewers is the possibility of an even wider audience: Perhaps one day, their words will grace a book’s cover or inside pages, as part of a promotional blurb, or be posted on a publisher’s Web site.”

And that’ll do it for me for 2010. Thank you for reading, commenting, and generally helping me be a better reader in the past year. See you in 2011.