The great creative writing swindle

Charles Baxter ruined my life.

OK, not really. But he did ruin my college GPA.

OK, not really. But my intense disregard for his pretentious, hackneyed work did. See, I suffer from what can only be described as a Baxter allergy. Whenever I’m faced with the prospect of reading good ol’ Charlie’s work, I become outwardly agitated. Blood rushes into my face. My hands begin to shake. Most obvious, at least to those around me, is the way the volume of my voice increases, the rapidity of my speech accelerates and curse words fly from my lips uncensored even in the presence of young children.

In other words, I become a raving madman.

How did this happen? There’s an entire class of English lit students from my first semester at the University of Michigan, back in 2001, who would like to know too, since I launched into a verbal tirade directed at each and every one of them. See, the professor of a class called “What Is Literature?” had assigned Baxter’s book The Feast of Love (2000), and I refused to agree with this professor that Baxter’s work had any place in a class that discussed the literary contributions of Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemmingway and Toni Morrison. First off, he can’t seem to write anything that anyone besides his professorial peers wants to read and jerk off to. Second, he’s not a very good writer. He’s more in love with his own intelligence than his craft.

“You only assigned this because Charlie Baxter works here,” I accused my professor, knowing full well that he was one of the witless posse who masturbated over their most illustrious resident writer’s latest work. (Baxter taught at U-M from 1989 to 2002.) Does he have that much trouble selling copies of his books that he needs the university staff to help him sell more?

“I’m pissed I was forced to spend $14 on this book,” I continued to rant. “Every page is filled with amateur storytelling mistakes that teachers like you have been warning students like me not to make.”

Three years later, it was my final semester at Michigan, and I was months away from earning a useless degree in English. To amuse myself, I signed up for Nicholas Delbanco’s “Contemporary Literature” class. If you don’t know of the guy, he’s one of the writing world’s most respected names. (He’s also a namedropper, but that’s beside the point).

Guess whose book I was assigned to read by Mr. Delbanco? Charlie Baxter’s — and this, even after the no-talent bugger took off to teach in Minnesota. Within weeks, I was complaining to Delbanco, who I knew was one of Baxter’s good friends. Unwilling to budge, I announced my intention to write an essay: “Why Charlie Baxter Can’t Write Worth a Shit.” Later revisions saw “shit” replaced with “damn.” I felt it was less abrasive.

All other involved parties disagreed.

Long story short, my insistence upon voicing my disgust resulted in not only a carefully constructed character assassination, but also a B+ for my fevered protest.

The B+ brought my class grade down. That one class brought down my GPA by a few fractions. Those few fractions, amounting to some five-hundredths of a point on the GPA scale, kept me from graduating “with honors.” In other words, Baxter ruined my life. Sort of.

No matter how eloquently he can string together a series of words or how profoundly he can grapple with man’s empty existence, Charles Baxter has only one voice. Every single character speaks in the same voice — even in a novel such as The Feast of Love, featuring an extensive cast of many ages, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds (but not races, since he only writes about white people). Sure, their individual vocabularies might shift incrementally, but those characters are still all performed by the same shitty actor. Like Keanu Reeves doing a one-man Hamlet.

What’s more, Baxter is a profound abuser of the clichéd epiphany — something he abused to no end in First Light (1995) despite how he protested against such literary heavy-handedness in “Against Epiphanies” in Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. Even though the guy likes to rail against what James Joyce wrought on 20th century literature, he still abuses the same literary gimmick with all the obsessive dedication a junkie demonstrates when looking for his next high — “This stuff is killing me (cough cough). You got some more, maaaan?”

Of epiphanies, he writes, “Stories can arrive somewhere without claiming any wisdom or clarification, [or] much of anything beyond their wish to follow a train of interesting events to a conclusion.”

Perhaps he should re-evaluate his literary philosophy, since critics’ biggest complaint tends to be that his stories go nowhere slowly, held together by a genuine talent for wordplay. Baxter might be good at pilfering the wisdom of philosophers and regurgitating it as his own, but all the wisdom in the world doesn’t make up for a poorly structured story.

Moreover, where does he get off lambasting epiphanies? His first novel was named after an epiphanic metaphor — that being the “first light” of the Los Alamos atomic bomb detonation and the insight that followed. Almost every bloody chapter of the book concludes with a light-accompanied epiphany. Then again, it was his first novel, as I said. Maybe he learned from his mistakes, leading to that damnable essay, “Against Epiphanies.” Let’s review a passage from his 2000 National Book Award finalist The Feast of Love.

Of a fiery wheel of clouds in the sky, the character Chloé says, “... that was the day I knew I had a goddess in me, because I had seen that. Oceans and rivers and fires of light, and I swam in that river from then on.”

The vulgarity of it all is that this man is a creative writing instructor. Literary hypocrites like him are helping to mold the next generation of writers, preaching out of their ass for others to follow them into a wonderful world of art they themselves have never conquered.

Unfortunately, the class I took on disagreed with me. All except for one, a lovely, lithe redhead — and I mean the fiery sort you only see on hair dye boxes — who finally mustered the courage to agree with me aloud.

I’ve just read Baxter’s latest opus, Saul and Patsy. Saul Bernstein is a manic, worrisome Baltimore Jew now living in Midwestern suburbia where he doesn’t feel nearly as out-of-place as the love of his life, Patsy. She’s the novel’s most engaging character, but, alas, she’s secondary to the travails of Saul, who mopes and shuffles his way through every scene. His character is probably Baxter’s most nuanced, truly a step forward for the author, but the novel itself (again, despite the intense likeability of his main characters) is undermined by his pretentious love of self, infusing the characters with a forced and unbelievable intelligence — sort of like saying, “Look how damn smart I am.” Worse, he’s taken his damn essay even more seriously than he did with Feast. After an epiphanic moment early in the book, an encounter between Saul and an albino deer, the book drifts and continues to drift, aimlessly. There seems to be a climax — Baxter always pulls things together nicely — but you have to wade through 200 pages to get there.

Congratulations, Charlie, you gave the epiphany a big “fuck you” and forgot to back it up with some real craft rather than the self-aggrandizing ejaculations you love to push off on a reading populace.

Hey, I just had an epiphany of my own (sans blinding lights, fiery clouds or albino deer): I’ve now read four books by Charles Baxter. That’s about 1,060 pages, 25 hours of reading or, if I were a minimum-wage burger flipper, $130 — plus the $60 I spent on these damn books. That means Charles Baxter has cost me nearly $200. And this rant, as fun as it’s been, won’t cover that. But one day, he’ll pay.

Cole Haddon is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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