Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Literature
(Graywolf Press, 2022)
“The hardest part of being a writer is learning how to survive the dark nights of the soul,” Charles Baxter writes about halfway through his new book, Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Literature. This isn’t Baxter’s first book about writing and the life of the writer as an artist. Graywolf Press, that marvelous small press in Minneapolis, Minnesota, published his Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (2007) about the psychological elements of writing that propel fiction, and Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction (1997), intended to stimulate students of writing about social and literary matters. Baxter’s latest novel is The Sun Collective (2020), but he is probably best known for the novel, The Feast of Love (2001), a National Book Award finalist. Baxter has published a half-dozen novels, just as many story collections, and won the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story.
Many of the witty and philosophical essays in his new book are personal and autobiographical; others are devoted to the art and craft of writing. Many of them originated in literary magazines like Ploughshares and the Colorado Review and from lectures given at the Bread Loaf Writers’s Conference.
Even the essays on the craft exude the breath of the subjective anecdote. Baxter, who has taught writing at several schools, including the University of Michigan and the University of Minnesota, has always been grateful to his students. Here, he mentions a few of them, Emily Sinclair, Matt Burgess, and Sally Franson, and dedicates essays to them.
In the first couple of essays Baxter discusses what he calls the “Request Moment,” that thing that drives the characters, and inventories—lists that help define characters. Concerning request moments, Baxter brings up examples from Shakespeare, The Godfather, and Shirley Jackson’s “Lottery.” In Macbeth, the moment occurs when Lady Macbeth dares her husband to murder Duncan; in Hamlet, it’s when the king’s ghost urges his son to avenge his death. In The Godfather, Bonasera asks Don Corleone to have the men who assaulted his daughter killed. In “The Lottery,” the request moment is nearly invisible, but everyone knows to show up for the stoning. As for lists and inventories—they are invented “facts” that become “imaginatively true,” as long as they don’t contradict the logic of the story: “One of the great mysteries and secret delights of writing fiction.”
In other essays, Baxter talks about “the writer as curator,” the importance of the cause and effect chain in plot, and the occasional need for a good antagonist like Iago. While the business about the cause and effect chain and the need for a good antagonist are fairly obvious, the idea of curator relates to the writer portraying and preserving things “about to disappear,” rather than discarding or ignoring them. For Baxter, objects acquire pathos and unexpected grandeur at the moment they are about to disappear. Baxter writes, “There is no good word for this particular feeling or mode, but it has to do with the beauty of an obsolete, aged, and weathered thing.”
Baxter talks about style in “Lush Life”: cool styles and more Baroque, hot styles. Cool styles seem to be today’s fashion. Logical, ironic, skeptical. He defines postmodern Baroque as “what remains of a lush style when the heat is taken out of it and skepticism, irony, and emptiness set up their brokerage house in its place.” and gives a long example from David Foster Wallace’s story “Good Old Neon.”
Positioned between essays about art and craft is a section called “Two Interludes” in the life of a writer/philosopher. One interlude, “What Happens in Hell,” is a long anecdote about Baxter’s trip to California to teach at Stanford as a visiting writer. When the Islamic limo driver, Niazi, first picks him up, he keeps calling Baxter “sir,” and asks if he’s ever considered what happens in Hell. Baxter, a typical midwesterner “by location and temperament,” who doesn’t “cotton” to being called “sir,” tries to be polite: “Just call me Charlie.” Four weeks later, the same driver picks him up again, but this time in the rain. Baxter damn near gets killed when the Californian, unused to driving in precipitation, loses control and the car skids off the highway and turns over sideways several times.
In the other interlude, a letter to writers called “All the Dark Night,” Baxter takes four days in a northern Minnesota cabin to write. His friend tells him that sounds nice, which inspires a mediation and a gripe about the writer as artist who doesn’t get the respect that other artists receive. Baxter writes:
Feelings of inadequacy are the black lung disease of writing. These are the nights during which the Fraud Police come to knock on your door.
Psychologists have their own name for this set of feelings … They call it “imposter syndrome.” Imposter syndrome is endemic to the art of writing because gifts—the clear evidence of talent—are not so clearly associated with writing as they are with music and graphic art. Not everyone has perfect pitch, not everyone can carry a tune, not everyone can draw or create an interesting representation of something on canvas. But almost every goddamn moron can write prose.
Compelled by the Trump presidency, Baxter writes about charisma and narcissism in politicos and in fiction, referring to definitions by social theorist Max Weber and critic and philosopher René Girard. Weber, who believed charisma was inherently neither bad nor good, applied the term “charismatic” to political figures, wherein “the charismatic figure is assumed to have supernatural, superhuman, or god-like powers that the rest of us lack.” Of Girard’s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel (1965), Baxter writes: “Charisma arises when two conditions meet: the person, usually male, is physically striking or beautiful and also seems to love no one and to need nobody.” It’s a “where’s-my-mirror narcissism of the stupendously beautiful or of the supremely confident and self-absorbed.” Baxter writes, “Most of the time, we pay attention to fictional characters because of what they do. With charismatic fictional characters, we pay attention because of what they are.” Charismatic characters must be more than colorful, they must be “dynamic and transformative.”
The title essay, “Wonderlands,” is part social commentary and part critical analysis of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. Baxter talks about fantasy and fantastical writing as “unrealism, the home of Wonderlands.” Within unrealistic fiction, characters cross over into another country, where they—and you, reader—are unwanted strangers. When you try to get back you find the border has closed. Unrealistic characters join cults, believe in conspiracies and Armageddon, and follow their charismatic leaders down into rabbit holes. Maybe our world is becoming unreal.
Baxter’s books about writing, including this one, are not manuals of style, simplistic guides to writing, or unsophisticated combinations of memoir and prose writing advice for every goddamn… like Stephen King’s On Writing (2000). Baxter’s essays about craft remind me more of novelist and short-story writer Arturo Vivante’s Writing Fiction (1980) and critic James Wood’s How Fiction Works (2008). Nearly every essay, including Baxter’s pieces on toxic narrative, dreams, and dramatic imagery, is hybridized with personal anecdotes that inspire, explain, and empathize.