Charles Baxter is the Edelstein-Keller Professor in Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota. His latest book is There’s Something I Want You to Do: Stories.
 (January 2016)

Never a Dull Moment

What kinds of narratives fit comfortably into the short-story form? An impossible question: at no time has there been any general consensus about how to answer it, and anyone who tries to formulate such an answer usually becomes the victim of critical potshots. But the issue is worth raising, because even a partial explanation might tell us what short stories actually do, what part they play in our culture, and why writers go on stubbornly committing them to print.

The Hideous Unknown of H.P. Lovecraft

The effectiveness of Lovecraft’s fiction has little to do with its purely literary qualities, which are minimal, but with another feature that’s harder to pinpoint: the ways it casts a spell. Fiction like Lovecraft’s can be brutally hypnotic; the young reader, intellectually undefended and easily shaken, enters the writer’s fear-drenched universe and can’t easily get out of it. The mood of unappeasable, apocalyptic menace gradually overcomes those who are unprepared for it.

Which Banville Shall We Choose?

John Banville, from the dust jacket of Ancient Light, and Banville as Benjamin Black, from the dust jacket of Vengeance
In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s praise for the work of other writers is almost undetectable, especially those from whom he had learned some elements of style—Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson in particular. Early in his memoir, however, Hemingway singles out a novelist whose books provide what he calls “after-work” pleasures …

Brute Force…Humanism

John Irving at his summer house in Pointe au Baril, Ontario, 2009
As a thought experiment, imagine a novel by an author you never heard of whose story comprises a coming-of-age tale in which the main character is educated in a Vermont prep school. Although his father may still be alive somewhere, the boy lives in the shadow of his handsome stepfather and his remote, disapproving mother. Various colorful relatives and townspeople circle in orbit around him. Fascinated by members of the school’s wrestling team, he later becomes a wrestler himself. In his adolescence the young man develops an interest in theater. He also discovers in himself a talent for writing.

A Different Kind of Delirium

Don DeLillo’s new book of nine stories, The Angel Esmeralda, has at its core a series of situations that lead to trance states experienced by the insulted, the injured, and the vulnerable… Written over the span of the past thirty-three years, the stories specialize in elaborate narrative chronologies in which some key element is missing. These strategic omissions give the stories their distinctive, nagging inscrutability, along with plots that present a mystery that hasn’t been announced, much less solved.

Behind Murakami’s Mirror

Haruki Murakami, Cambridge, Massachusetts, July 2005
Haruki Murakami’s novels, stories, and nonfiction display, often very bravely and beautifully, the pull of the unreal and the fantastical on ordinary citizens who, unable to bear the world they have been given, desperately wish to go somewhere else. The resulting narratives conform to what I have called Unrealism. In Unrealism, characters join cults. They believe in the apocalypse and Armageddon, or they go down various rabbit holes and arrive in what Murakami himself, in a bow to Lewis Carroll, calls Wonderland. They long for the end times.

Last Year at Crypt Park

Tom McCarthy at the London Review Bookshop, 2010
What is the secret of literature? Is there one? According to Tom McCarthy, whose new novel C hoards one secret after another, “the text creates the secret, and the secret underpins the text, making it readable through its own unreadability.”1 What does this mean? Just this: every work of …

‘His Glory and His Curse’

Cerulean wood warblers; illustration by John James Audubon
The opening pages in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom come off as a brilliant hybridization of a Jane Austen and a D.H. Lawrence novel. They are written with the conviction that the novel of love isn’t dead after all. But Franzen, judging from the evidence of this novel, doesn’t want to be Jane Austen; he wants to be Tolstoy. Courtship and marriage comprise only a part of his book. His characters must move to the centers of American power, out of the Midwest and into Washington and New York City, where world-historical mistakes are made, and where, as innocents, they will be wised-up. Freedom’s ambition is to be the sort of novel that sums up an age and that gets everything into it, a heroic and desperate project.

Stars Without Sky

Jonathan Lethem, Brooklyn, 2009
The title of Jonathan Lethem’s new novel suggests a cityscape that is both unwell and bedeviled by repetition. The story is located largely on New York’s Upper East Side, specifically 84th Street and Second Avenue, with extensions bounded by the East Nineties to the north and Grand Central Station to …

Flowering Porter

Katherine Anne Porter at Yaddo, Saratoga Springs, New York, 1940; photograph by Eudora Welty
Katherine Anne Porter is a case of a writer whose last fiction seemed oddly ill-matched with the work that preceded it. Readers of a certain age may remember the literary hoopla surrounding the publication of her only novel, Ship of Fools, in 1962. A work of twenty years’ labor, the …