Story About the Story: An Interview with Nicholson Baker

J. C. Hallman

Nicholson Baker is the author of more than a dozen books.  His third book, U and I: A True Story, about John Updike, is a common frame of reference for many who write creative criticism today.  “Defoe, Truthteller,” reprinted in The Story About the Story II, was first published in Columbia Journalism Review, and appears in Baker’s The Way the World Works: Essays.  His most recent book is Traveling Sprinkler.

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

Nicholson Baker: Well, I feel obliged from time to time, but I wouldn’t want to impose my perceived obligations on anybody else.

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 Literature departments?

NB: What happened was that people like Pater and Swinburne overdid the rapture and tired everyone out.  The idea grew up that we had to set aside our likes and dislikes, and even our knowledge of biographical context—and sometimes that impulse was helpful.  New Criticism and Close Reading aspired to be a little like the f/64 school of photography, where everything was in focus.  No softness, no mists of emotion.  Panovsky was searching for iconographical symbols with a magnifying glass, and I.A. Richards was, if I remember right, making diagrams that supposedly demonstrated the neurological effects triggered by lines of poetry.  After a few decades of poking at lyrical joys with the tools of forensic prose, we’d had enough of pseudo-objectivity and instead spiraled out into the deep dark-mattered space of Franco-Grecian vocabularies and learned, humorless puns.  Now there are fewer English majors, and we’re back to square one—reading and writing reviews, celebrating and spurning.

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

NB: An empty page is license enough.  Write about what interests you, and what you genuinely want to think about, and what you love or don’t love.  Acknowledge your frailties and non-omniscience.  Novels, because they’re about all of life, are big and buoyant enough to ferry carloads of what we think of as criticism to the far shore.

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

NB: It’s more inclusive and loosey-goosey, open to the temptations of distraction.  When it’s good, it shows tenderness, humility, and the occasional burst of fierceness.

JCH: Are books and literature in a state of crisis these days?  If so, does that have anything to do with how we write about literature?

NB: If this is a crisis it isn’t so bad.  Hundreds, thousands of books appear every month, and more people are recording their reactions to books than ever before in the history of print—blogging about them, podcasting about them, reviewing them on places like Goodreads and iBooks and Amazon—and some of what they’re doing is beautiful and smart.  I only wish there weren’t so many stars everywhere.  Novels aren’t generals.  Pinning three or four or one or five stars on a book is a primitive way of communicating our approval of anything as singular as a piece of writing.  It’s not a good way to think about hotels or restaurants, either.

JCH: Toward the end of “Defoe, Truthteller” (included in The Story About the Story II), you ask the following in response to a particularly lurid description in A Journal of the Plague Year:

“Is the author being a reporter here, or a novelist?  We don’t know.  We want to know.”

The suggestion here, I think, is that novels sometimes rely on factual accuracy, on a direct correspondence with the world they are presumably “about.”  But how does a novelist indicate, in a fiction, that a particular fact is not yet another invention?

NB: A novel is a smoothie made by blendering together fact and invention.  I think that for the most part we sense the distinction easily, instinctively, and continuously.  Even a fictional sentence like “He knocked softly on the door” presupposes our shared experience of real doors.  If a character wanders through the Jardin des Plantes in Paris and looks at a tree, thinking back over a talk she had with an old lover while they painted a living room together, we assume the reality of the Parisian tree and the paint, and even possibly the reality of their conversation, but we also know that the scene is probably a composite arrangement with tossed-in blueberries of invention.

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

NB: Maybe something by Lafcadio Hearn?  He’s a brilliant impressionist.

In addition to editing The Story About the Story, J.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.