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Essays on Fiction

by Charles Baxter

Pub Date: April 1st, 1997
ISBN: 1-55597-256-X
Publisher: Graywolf

In nine repackaged essays, novelist and short-story writer Baxter (Believers, p. 76, etc.) scorches such fictional, and social, trends as mandatory epiphanies, preachified characterizations, and the absence of villainy. To touch on his sore spots about current fiction and ``the storytelling of everyday life,'' Baxter often opens with overtly mundane scenes, such as funeral eulogies, gossipy parties, or the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, before moving on to sometimes slender fictional parallels. A Dow Chemical flack's actual description of the physical side effects of a chemical spill as a ``vomiting-type thing'' aptly starts off an appreciative essay on Donald Barthelme's humorously fractured and irrational portrayals of the modern world. But more often, Baxter crankily stretches his conceits without producing much tension: Observations about Jimmy Swaggart's resemblance to an abusive father appear in a study of melodrama; and in an exploration of the cults of victimhood and deniability, he cites such disparate examples as Jane Smiley's novel A Thousand Acres and the memoirs of Richard Nixon (``the greatest influence on American fiction for the last twenty years''). His complaints seem to be less with bad writing than with ``the postmodern impatient, middle-class Puritan'' (whoever that may be) and American culture's expectations of revelations, action, and moralized ``human clichÇs'' in contemporary fiction. His generalized social commentary aside, Baxter's aesthetic criticism has some modest insights (e.g., the recurrence of gum-chewing in Lolita). Typically, though, it's pedestrian, and occasionally it's self-serving. When he tries to get additional mileage out of such canonical standards as The Great Gatsby or The Death of Ivan Ilyich, there is little that seems fresh or startling. Much as he tries to challenge conventional taste, Baxter often gets stuck halfway between his idiosyncratic aesthetics and his narrative dislikes.