Articles of War was named a book of the year by Esquire Magazine, was winner of the American Arts and Letters Rosenthal Foundation Award and the American Library Association’s Boyd Award. It won the Colorado Book Award and was chosen by Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper as the 2007 pick for the One Book, One Denver program.
I had the pleasure of taking Nick's Experimental Fiction workshop at Lighthouse in late 2007.
Your work has been featured in The New Yorker; you’ve published a successful debut novel and a collection of short stories. You have an incredible pedigree and your first novel was met with critical success and reviews in all of the best publications. Does all of this praise and attention create additional pressure for you?
It feels strange to be described that way. In my mind, I'm still pretty much just a chump from a small blue collar town struggling to piece together sentences and hoping that maybe someone will like them when I'm done. Just the other day I got a form rejection from The Colorado Review for a story I'd submitted.
At the most basic level, having had some success doesn't affect things much; I mean, it's not as if while writing a sentence I'm simultaneously thinking, I wonder what the American Academy of Arts and Letters might think of this? (I'm more likely to be thinking, this is really bad. Could I possibly be writing a more bad sentence than this?)
When I step back and look at what I'm doing a little more broadly, having had some success is usually more of a help than not, because it provides some validation. I've managed to write some publishable things in the past, so it seems like there's a decent chance that maybe I can do it again. Maybe I'm not wasting my time. I remember well enough what it was like when I sat down to write every day with nothing to back me up but a lot of rejection slips, struggling with the feeling that I was doing all this work and quite possibly, basically, I wasn't even very good at it. So, no, on balance, having had some success doesn't cause me to feel a lot of pressure; it's more like relief.
How much do you care about reviews?
I feel anxious reading any review, even if it's on some completely obscure blog, and it only takes a mildly negative comment to set my teeth on edge for days. But, taking the long view, it's absurd to hope for complete understanding or sympathy from every reader or reviewer, and the best work is often divisive. When I was at
Were you ever hooked on one particular writer’s work?
At various times I've burrowed into Italo Calvino, Borges, Alice Munro, Graham Greene, Dostoyevsky, Cormac McCarthy, others.
But, actually, I find I often do a funny thing when I encounter a writer I really like, which is to put off reading their other work into the indefinite future, and I'm not sure if I do that because I want to save it for a day when everything else dismays me, or if on some level I feel like the anticipation of reading something really good is even more delicious than actually reading it. Usually I do eventually get around to it, but it can take years.
Who’s your favorite contemporary writer?
It's tempting to work up a long list, but I'll just say that the first name to come to mind is Edward P. Jones. I admire his work of the last several years enormously.
Were there any classics that you wanted to read and wanted to like that you just couldn’t get through?
Generally I enjoy reading the classics, and I rarely abandon books once I've gotten past the first two dozen pages or so, but this did happen recently with The Man Without Qualities, by whatshisname, which I gave up on at around page 200. I found I'd begun to regard reading it as a labor, and there was just no reason to put myself through that.
The interesting thing about it was that I had told a friend I was planning to read TMWQ, and she was interested in it, and I said I'd let her know what I thought when I finished. So then I had to write her and tell her about giving up on it, and she wrote back wondering why I was so apologetic about not finishing the book. And I discovered that I really did feel apologetic about it. Which is kind of absurd. But -- and probably this happens particularly with a classic -- I realized that I tend to think, or feel, like my inability to enjoy a book that a lot of other people have enjoyed represents a failure of sympathy or empathy or intellect or something. And maybe it does!
I’ve gotten jaded about assuming that all works that garner awards and positive praise are worth my time. I sometimes believe the emperor has no clothes
I can certainly agree that there are plenty of empty suits (armies of them!) wandering around looking for an emperor. But this also comes back to the idea that, basically, you can't please all the readers all the time. I'm more than willing to allow that there are some great books that don't seem so great to me and yet are nonetheless great books. Literature should be larger than the horizons of my individual taste and understanding.
Who’s the best writer I’ve probably never heard of?
Go read Wright Morris, particularly Plains Song and The Works of Love.Stephen Goodwin in The Washington Post Bookworld said, “No writer in
Charles Baxter, in Burning Down the House, captures it better than I could: The Works of Love, about a man whose life never amounts to very much and who lives his life in a semi-trance is written in a relentlessly peculiar style... After a few awkward gestures toward plot, the novel's story line, such as it is, renounces conflict in favor of meditation. Declarative sentences often switch direction and conclude with question marks... If it were not for its seemingly banal Midwestern settings and lower middle-class characters and laconic narrative voice, the book would have long ago been classified as European experimentalism at its most willful and extreme... The result is a terribly eerie novel about a specific kind of American emptiness..."
What Baxter is saying here is particularly true of The Works of Love, but it would also more-or-less apply to most of Wright Morris' work that I've read. I think the plotlessness, in particular, probably puts off a lot of readers. In this way Morris is similar to WG Sebald, who I know you've read.
What’s the worst advice you’ve ever been given?
When I was at
This "write what you know" cliché irritates me because I don't understand where it comes from. I've read a lot of mediocre fiction in a lot of workshops, and whatever problems those pieces have had, it's almost never (if ever!) that the writers have stretched too far outside of "what they know." It's often the opposite, in fact. I suspect that "write what you know" is a thing people tend to say when they don't like what they've read and they're too lazy to think very hard about why that is.
Contrast this with the "show don't tell" cliché, which also irritates me, because there are plenty of situations where telling is more effective. But I at least understand where it comes from, because I have seen writers (usually rank beginners) who simply don't know how to write scenes or develop physical detail and even experienced writers will sometimes gloss over a difficult emotion or interaction with a summary word or phrase, so that it becomes tempting to offer up that particular cliché. But I resist, I really do.
What would you like to talk about, but no one has ever asked you?
Well, a topic that I'd like to see more writers address, because I think it's important and because I don't actually have any clear ideas about it myself, is how fiction fits into modern life and whether it should adjust itself in some way to the pressures now on it.
What I mean is that there was an era when the printed page was the only mass media there was, and if you wanted to immerse yourself in a narrative, you either got someone to tell you a story orally or you sat down and read a book or magazine or newspaper. I suppose if you lived in a city, maybe you could go to a play. Now, however, you have a lot of options for finding various kinds of narrative -- movies, TV, radio, blogs, video games, pod casts, and probably lots of other formats that I'm too square to know about. So, because people have finite time to spend on these things and they have all these new alternatives, it's not terribly surprising that people are reading less than they used to. What I've been wondering is if written fiction ought to adjust itself in some way to fit into this new situation, for example, by emphasizing its unique strengths relative to other media forms (and if so, what are those strengths?).
It's become almost a commonplace to say that recent fiction has been heavily influenced by cinematic techniques, and generally cross-pollination between the arts is a good thing, but is there a danger that readers might begin to see a novel, any novel, as merely a kind of half-assed movie? (I think there actually is a danger of this, based on how quick people are to ask me whether my novel will be a movie, and ask this in a way that seems to imply its potential will only be fully realized if it does become a movie.)
I think that one clear advantage written fiction has over other narrative forms -- movies and TV in particular -- is in its ability to depict an inner consciousness. But I'm not sure that means we should all be hot on the heels of Joyce and Faulkner.
I'm curious what you think about this, particularly since you have some experience in both writing fiction and in blogging. Do you see the two forms engaging the reader differently? Are you aware of trying to take advantage of those differences?
I do strive to take advantage of those differences in fiction. The books I love do things that only fiction can do. The characters have rich interior lives and the writers use language in a way that can only be appreciated when it’s read. I don’t think of blogging in the same way I think about fiction writing, because it’s a dialogue. Frankly, if I thought about it as writing, as opposed to the public whining I do with my online friends, I’d never post anything.
Kurt Vonnegut said “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” Do you write with a particular reader in mind?
Not really. I write to please myself, mostly. That is, I try to tell stories that I would like to read, and to tell them in a way that's pleasing to me. Most of the day-to-day decisions in writing are really micro-level questions of diction, syntax, physical detail, and it would seem very strange to me to try to guess whether my wife would prefer, say, "gasping" or "wheezing" in a particular sentence. And I also feel like, if I'm not writing to please myself, why bother? I mean it's not like it pays well.
Is there anything you want to reveal about your second novel?
Let's just say it features more car crashes than an entire season of Dukes of Hazzard.
I look forward to reading it! Thank you for taking the time to entertain my questions.
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Do you think that whether or not a book is adapted to film is now a standard for whether or not the book is successful? How often do you tend to read a book as if it were a movie? What are your thoughts on how fiction is adapting or might adapt to keep pace with our world?