Spending Time With a Writer Who Has Taken the Time to Study Narrative

From a New York Times review by Lori Soderlind of the book by Charles Baxter titled “Wonderland: Essays on the Life of Literature”:

Perhaps you miss your college literature professor, or your writing workshop friend who loved books the way you do. Or perhaps you haven’t gotten around to that M.F.A. in creative writing yet but really keep meaning to. Charles Baxter’s WONDERLANDS: Essays on the Life of Literature (252 pp., Graywolf, paper, $17) is made to fill the book-shaped hole in you.

It is always gratifying to spend time with a smart writer who has taken the time to study narrative, how it works, what the construction of stories tells us about ourselves. He contemplates, for example, “lush” writing, “a hot and often extravagant style” employed by masters such as Gabriel García Márquez and Toni Morrison, and breaks lushness down to three components as if he were dismantling an engine. He identifies the “Captain Happen” type of protagonist in novels of intense urgency, and contrasts such work with meditative novels like “Ulysses,” in which “all the pressure is on the sentences.”

Such essays can be read as craft lectures intended for aspiring writers; Baxter, after all, taught creative writing for many years while publishing his 14 books. But one need not be a writer to appreciate what the study of craft reveals. These are guides to deeper reading.

Baxter interrupts his craft essays with an “interlude” of personal reflections, on writing as “an art, and a condition.” The interlude adds depth to what might otherwise be a simple literary toolbox. For all the lessons contained in this book, Baxter teaches most through his personal stories, particularly that of an agent who cruelly turned down one of his early unpublished novels — presented here in a page of dialogue that may be the most chilling literary rejection story ever written. The lesson of doing things wrong and of persisting, despite humiliation, is the one writers at any stage need most to hear.

Lori Soderlind is the author of “Chasing Montana: A Love Story” and “The Change: My Great American, Postindustrial, Midlife Crisis Tour.”

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