Story About the Story: An Interview with Charles Baxter

J. C. Hallman

In the second volume of The Story About the Story, editor J. C. Hallman continues to argue for an alternative to the staid five-paragraph-essay writing that has inoculated so many against the effects of good books. Writers have long approached writing about reading from an intensely personal perspective, incorporating their pasts and their passions into their process of interpretation. Never before collected in a single volume, the many essays Hallman has compiled build on the idea of a “creative criticism,” and offers new possibilities for how to write about reading. In this series of Q&A’s with Story About the Story contributors, Hallman will explore the state of creative criticism today with some of its most accomplished practitioners. First up is the great Charles Baxter:

J.C. Hallman: Do creative writers have an obligation to act as critics, to offer up alternatives to traditional critical methodologies and assumptions?

Charles Baxter: Nope.  They should only do it if they’re moved to do it and have a gift for it.  Thank God neither Hemingway nor Faulkner wrote much, or any, literary criticism.

JCH: As you see it, what happened to criticism?  That is, how did we move from Arnold and Pater and Wilde to the kind of academic criticism produced in English departments?

CB: The old story: given the necessities of specialization and bureaucratic infighting, American English departments needed to have a specialized and difficult discourse that served a social (read: institutional) need.  They wanted a style that would impress and terrify.  Their members acquired these styles from French and German literary and social philosophy that had been written in response to a set of genuine intellectual crises and a sense of historical necessity.  But Americans bought and acquired these styles the way Charles Foster Kane bought European statues, for the prestige, and they imported them, pre-fabricated, for their own essays, but with the sense of intellectual necessity usually drained out.

JCH: What was it that first gave you license to approach criticism more creatively?

CB: My teachers in graduate school—Arthur Efron and Irving Massey—encouraged it. I tried to write academic criticism and thought I would die trying. When I read Orwell’s “Tolstoy, Lear, and the Fool” I thought: that’s it. That’s how I want to do it. The criticism of the Eastern Europeans was also a great model for me.

JCH: To your mind, what best characterizes writerly or creative criticism?

CB:  The breath of life.  A sense of inner necessity.  Humor and wit.  Courage.

JCH: In “Sonya’s Last Speech, or, Double-Voicing: An Essay in Sixteen Sections” (included in The Story About the Story II), you describe the moment when a speech in a Chekov play first grabbed your attention:

“From then on I was in a state of nearly sick excitement, nervous sweat oozing out of me.  But I also happened to know, having once studied Uncle Vanya, that Sonya gives the last speech of the play, a curtain speech, and for various reasons I was afraid of it.  And when we finally got there, to that speech, I found myself first disabled with tears, and then very close to sobs.  The movie ended [Vanya on 42nd Street] and I could not leave the theatre.  I had to be ushered out by the pimply teenaged usher, who took a very dim view of me.  ‘Show’s over, man,’ he said, broom in hand.”

What’s striking here, to me, is the contrast between yourself and the usher.  Just before this moment, you’re just as blasé as the boy is, uncertain you even want to be watching this play – and then, wham!  Is this the real purpose of literature, do you think?  To be reminded, suddenly, to care deeply about others in a world in which it’s alarmingly easy to sink into bland torpor?

CB: Well, I’d never want to say that there’s only one purpose to literature.  I’m not even sure that literature has a purpose, other than to give pleasure and, possibly, enlightenment.  Ours is a pragmatic culture, and we’re always trying to justify something by saying what its purpose is.  But sometimes art has no clear purpose, apart from the pleasure it gives.  What’s the purpose of Debussy’s Preludes?  And do novels really make us care deeply about others?  If they did, English departments would be full of generous, humane, and sweet-tempered people.  Joseph Goebbels wrote a novel, and Hitler loved Wagner’s operas.  Art does not always make us better people.  We have to remember that.

JCH: Is there any particular text you would recommend for The Story About the Story III?

CB: See above: Orwell: “Tolstoy, Lear, and the Fool.”

Charles Baxter is the author of ten books of fiction, three collections of poems, and two collections of essays.  His most recent book is Gryphon: New and Selected Stories.  His contribution to The Story About the Story II, “Sonya’s Last Speech, or, Double-Voicing: An Essay in Sixteen Sections,” first appeared in Colorado Review, and was published most recently in Baxter’s Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. 

In addition to editing The Story About the StoryJ.C. Hallman is the author of several books, including The Chess Artist, In Utopia, Wm & H’ry, and B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal.