The Wonderlands of Charles Baxter

September 23, 2022


By K. L. Cook



My conversion to the short story was in no small part a result of reading The Best American Short Stories 1986, guest edited by Raymond Carver and filled with writers that I would continue to read, reread, and teach for years to come—among them Grace Paley, Alice Munro, Richard Ford, Thomas McGuane, Ann Beattie, James Lee Burke, Joy Williams, Mona Simpson, and Tobias Wolff. Alphabetical ordering meant that the second of the twenty terrific stories in this anthology was Charles Baxter’s “Gryphon.” Baxter was a relatively unknown writer at the time, having only published a couple of collections of stories. I couldn’t get enough of this tale—about an idiosyncratic substitute teacher, Miss Ferenczi, in the fictional small town of Five Oaks, Michigan, who enlivens her grade-school students’ imaginations with her elaborate dress, her decidedly non-Midwestern lunches and attitudes, and most of all by her manic, free-associative soliloquies, combining history, fiction, myth, and what she calls “substitute facts.” The kids quarrel over her pedagogical methods, but all of them are unquestionably mesmerized by her, as if she is one of the “fabulous beasts” she describes, the gryphon—part bird, part human—a dangerous and exotic creature whose unexpected presence in their classroom culminates in her deadly honest tarot readings of their futures.


Like the young narrator of the story, enchanted by Miss Ferenczi, I fell under Baxter’s spell. I gobbled up every story he wrote and seized upon every opportunity to teach “Gryphon.” With its charismatic but unstable protagonist, sly wit, and deconstruction of the educational system, it inevitably emerged as my students’ favorite story. In my first year as a visiting instructor at the College of Charleston, I helped host Baxter for a reading. I had recently completed my master’s in literature and had spent a year as a doctoral student, during which I spent most of my time acting in plays and taking creative writing courses with a young novelist, Richard Russo, who had joined the English Department at Southern Illinois University. Russo had encouraged me to switch academic teams, as he himself had done, from the scholarly life to the life of a fiction writer. Russo had also recently joined the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College, which was then one of only two such programs in the nation (Vermont College the other), both of them offshoots of the original program founded at Goddard College. Russo encouraged me to apply to Warren Wilson, but I had my doubts about the value and legitimacy of the low-residency MFA model. Most of the faculty consisted of an eclectic band of thirty-something writers with a book or two under their belts. Many, like Russo, taught at other universities—low-residency teaching apparently a moonlighting gig for poor writers and professors. But Russo swore that the artistic community there was like nothing he’d ever experienced, and I was intrigued by, if not completely sold on, the idea.


Charles Baxter was among the Warren Wilson faculty, so part of my agenda in advocating for his visit to the College of Charleston was to see if he was as good a teacher as he was a writer, and to find out what he had to say about the low-residency method, especially since he himself had never taken a creative writing class and was, like Russo, a refugee from the world of literary theory and scholarship, having earned his doctorate in modernism from the University of Buffalo. He was entertaining, funny, accessible, and insightful, and after his reading, I sat with him for a long while, picking his brain, searching for encouragement to commit to my ambition of becoming a writer, as well as verification that low-residency artistic education was no fluke or fad. At the end of our conversation, he took the copy of his collection of stories I had purchased, Through the Safety Net, and on the flysheet wrote the contact information for Warren Wilson’s MFA program. That he would besmirch his own book with administrative data sealed the deal for me.


Nine months later, I was sitting in a muggy auditorium in Swannanoa, North Carolina, during my first Warren Wilson summer residency, listening to Baxter deliver a craft lecture, “Counterpointed Characterization,” one of the lectures that he would eventually adapt into his landmark collection of essays on fiction, Burning Down the House. My peers in the program, as well as Baxter’s faculty colleagues, were along with me electrified by the lecture—with its combination of sophisticated literary analysis, wit, and craft-based theory. I returned to Charleston after the residency, buzzing with ideas, especially from this lecture. I immediately wrote a fifty-page draft of the first story I would publish, “Texas Moon,” a tale that opened the imaginative door to the place, characters, themes, and narrative strategies that would preoccupy me for the next three decades.


Though Baxter never was one of my official mentors, his lectures, residency workshop facilitation, readings of his own work, and wry and animated presence at the residencies were high points of anticipation and contemplation for me. I especially looked forward to his lectures, which even among the many brilliant lectures I heard while a student there were unquestionably the gold standard. As he said in the original 1997 preface to Burning Down the House, these lecture-essays were “hybrid or perhaps mongrel literary productions,” which he hoped would “stimulate the listener to think about a social and literary matter in a way that would be naggingly helpful.” In the years that followed, I studied and then shared with both my undergraduate and graduate students his explorations of defamiliarization and stillness, rhyming action and the inner life of objects, melodrama and epiphanies, and relished his close readings of writers ranging from Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Katherine Anne Porter to Jane Smiley and Donald Barthelme.


Perhaps his most controversial and thought-provoking essay focused on what he called his “wild claim” that Richard Nixon had exerted the greatest influence on contemporary American fiction since the 1970s because the disgraced president had institutionalized the concept of “dysfunctional narratives”—stories in which protagonists lose their agency, in which, to use Nixon’s infamous passive-voice construction, “mistakes were made.” “There is such a thing as the poetry of a mistake,” Baxter argues, “and when you say, ‘Mistakes were made,’ you deprive an action of its poetry, and you sound like a weasel. When you say, ‘I fucked up,’ the action retains its meaning, its sordid origin, its obscenity, and its poetry. Poetry is quite compatible with obscenity.”


In the decades since, I’ve continued to read and teach Baxter’s work—both his fiction and his essays. I’ve interviewed him for a literary journal, written him fan letters, listened to tapes of his lectures, and shared his stories, essays, and ideas with fellow writers. My most recent book, The Art of Disobedience, which grew out of lectures I have given as a faculty member of Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program, was inspired by his example of what a craft essay can and should be—not just technical how-to advice, but rather an aesthetic and personal inquiry.


Three dozen years after I first discovered “Gryphon,” Baxter is no longer a literary secret but one of the most celebrated writers in America. He’s published fifteen books, including several acclaimed novels, though his lasting achievements will most likely be his individual short stories and collections, including short story cycles in the form of novels, such as the bestselling The Feast of Love, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Saul and Patsy, which grew out of recurring characters who appeared in his early collections. One of my literary high points during the pandemic was learning that Baxter had earned the 2021 PEN/Malamud Award, the most prestigious honor for lifetime achievement in the short story.


His significance and influence as an essayist is arguably as great, perhaps even greater, than his influence as a fiction writer. Burning Down the House almost singlehandedly resurrected and reenergized the craft essay, reminding us of the great tradition of writer-critics who don’t just proffer advice but artfully combine aesthetics, memoir, close readings of texts, and cultural and literary criticism. Based on the unexpected and enduring success of Burning Down the House, Baxter became the editor for Graywolf Press’ celebrated Art of series—consisting of small, beautiful, monograph-length books. This series includes Baxter’s wonderful second collection of craft essays, The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, as well as a who’s who of contemporary literary writers examining not only basic elements of technique such as description, point of view, and syntax, but also mystery, daring, time in both fiction and memoir, and even death, as in Edwidge Danticat’s acclaimed The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story. As both an exemplar of the craft essayist and as the editor of dozens of other books in this tradition, Baxter has arguably changed the contemporary American literary landscape (more than even Nixon) and revitalized the ideal of literature as a necessary method of investigating the intersection of the personal, cultural, political, historical, and ethical worlds we all inhabit.


In the summer of 2022, at age seventy-five, Baxter published his fifteenth book, Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Literature. My copy arrived days before I left for Spalding’s summer residency in Paris, and it was the only pleasure reading I packed. In the afternoons, as I waited for the record heat to subside so I could explore the city, I savored each of the twelve essays from this collection. Although the lecture-essays from Burning Down the House will always be crucial touchstones for me, given the way they dovetailed perfectly with my own apprenticeship, the essays in Wonderlands are arguably the best, deepest, and certainly the most personal Baxter has ever written. These new pieces help illuminate the mystery at the heart of his own fiction, most notably in the lead essay, “The Request Moment,” which focuses on the kind of charged scenes we see in Baxter’s There’s Something I Want You to Do, a Decalogue-inspired collection of linked tales that explore the morally complicated control others hold over us when they ask us to do something we don’t want to do.


Other essays in Wonderlands harken back to Burning Down the House and The Art of Subtext, re-investigating his previous “wild claims,” offering both rhyming and counterpointed ideas. “The Writer as Curator,” for example, echoes his study of the “inner life of objects.” “What Happens in Hell,” a hair-raising and deeply personal description of a near-death experience, is an off-rhyme of “Maps and Legends of Hell: Notes on Melodrama.” “Charisma and Fictional Authority” reminds us of “Dysfunctional Narratives,” with the evocation of Trump as a direct descendent of Nixon, peddling without shame the concept of “deniability.” And “Toxic Narratives” reaffirms the implied argument of so many of Baxter’s essays and stories: that agency and culpability matter, in fiction and in life, and the identity-threatening secret story we can tell no one else, except perhaps the reader, is the consequential narrative that defines our lives and both enlarges and troubles the moral universe of fiction.


In his preface to Wonderlands, Baxter tells us that this is “a set of essays about features in narratives that have had an obsessive grip on me: requests and lists; and hauntings; toxic subject matter and Hell; dreams and urgent narratives; and images. . . . I have done my best in these essays to be interesting and to be as courageous as I could be in uniting the personal and the impersonal, the subjective and the objective. . . . All the stories we tell each other are hybridized: parts of them come from the ‘real world’ . . . and parts of them from somewhere else, a place I have called ‘Wonderland,’ very close to the land of possibility and the land of dreams. In front of every story and novel and poem, there is a WELCOME mat. You step on the mat and you enter. Once you’re in, you’re someone else.”


Whether you’re a longtime devotee of Baxter’s fiction and essays, as I am, or a first-time visitor, I invite you to step inside his generous and provocative world. As he graciously suggests in his preface, you are welcome in this land of wonder.



 

K. L. Cook is the author of six books and co-directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing & Environment at Iowa State University. He has been a faculty member of the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University since 2004. His author website is www.klcook.net.