For over thirty years Charles Baxter has been not only a remarkably good writer, but a professional teacher of writing. To understand what this really means, let us assume that he has maintained a very modest schedule, giving only two fiction workshops a year, with an average of ten students, each of whom has turned in five stories or their equivalent as part of a novel. At a minimum, therefore, Baxter has now read about three thousand stories, most of which, we have to assume, were not remarkably good. He will also, most probably, have kept up with what has been published during these thirty years, reading or rereading at least one story every week, for an additional 1,560 stories.
It is not surprising, therefore, that after a while Baxter became overfamiliar with and critical of the tools that fill the workboxes of most writers of fiction. The result was an intelligent, occasionally impatient, and very enjoyable book, Burning Down the House (1997), in which he shows how well these devices have worked for other gifted writers, past and present, but questions their continued use.
In a chapter called “Against Epiphanies,” for instance, Baxter discusses what a student I used to know called “stupid little realization stories.” Once upon a time, he says, as in Joyce’s “Araby,” the sudden rush of knowledge and/or self-knowledge was new, surprising, and effective. Now, however, “Everyone is having insights…. Everywhere there is a glut of epiphanies…. But…there is a smell about them of recently molded plastic.” One problem is that these insights tend to “depend on an assumption that the surface is false.” There is also often an implication that characters in a story who do not have these insights are morally or intellectually inferior. “Now that the production of epiphanies has become a business, the unenlightened are treated with sad pity, and with the little grace notes of contempt.”
Another thing that troubles Baxter is that so few stories today have protagonists who make important decisions and act on them. He believes that it is the duty of writers to “nudge but not force [their characters] toward situations where they will get into interesting trouble, where they will make interesting mistakes that they may take responsibility for.” Too often today “the story is trying to find a source of meaning, but…everyone is disclaiming responsibility. Things have just happened.”
Baxter questions the social assumptions that underlie much contemporary fiction. In the past, writers like Zola or Dreiser often assumed that the political system was at fault; today we still “believe that people are often helpless, but we don’t blame the corporations anymore. We blame the family.” Today, he remarks, many protagonists suffer harm in childhood and spend the rest of their lives feeling miserable because of it. All they can do is identify the source of…
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