Charles Baxter on Politics and Fiction

Filed under: Blog, Interview, Writing |

To accompany Air Schooner’s new Super Tuesday podcast focusing on politics and the American literary landscape and featuring interviews with Nikki Giovanni and Cynthia Hogue, PS senior reader Bob Fuglei interviewed Charles Baxter, author of The Feast of Love, Saul and Patsy, and Shadow Play, among many other novels, story collections, and works of criticism and craft commentary. Fuglei and Baxter discuss the influence of figures such as Nixon, Bachmann, and Gingrich on contemporary literary discourse, as well as question of politics and the MFA.*

BF: In your essay “Dysfunctional Narratives, or ‘Mistakes Were Made,'” you argue that the greatest influence on American fiction has been Richard Nixon, not so much in terms of his writing but in terms of his public character. Can you explain what you mean by that?

CB: Well, Nixon looks like a prince among men compared to the slimeballs we’ve got now. What I meant was, Nixon put all sorts of actions into play that he later disavowed any responsibility for. He created one dysfunctional narrative after another. You couldn’t tell who was responsible for anything with Nixon in the White House. Then it got worse with the President of Forgetting, Ronald Reagan, and then the Bushes, Sr. and Jr. And let’s not forget Bill Clinton. In creative writing workshops, there’s the typical story in which no one is responsible for anything; shit happens, that’s all. It’s all about fate, or something. I hate stories like that.

BF: Michele Bachmann, about whom you wrote in her first House election in 2006, briefly took the national stage earlier this year in the Republican presidential race. Listening to her, it’s hard not to marvel at how political words seldom have much relationship to facts, or are even really expected to have such a relationship. Has the “dysfunction” of our political discourse changed or deepened significantly since you wrote “Mistakes Were Made”?

CB: You’re kidding, right? Of course it has. Michele Bachmann will say anything that will get her name into the papers. She’s brilliant at being newsworthy by being shrewdly borderline-crazy. She appeals to the ignoscenti. Everyone knows that her facts won’t be checked, or, if they are checked, will be checked on National Public Radio when only intellectuals are listening. She’s aware, as few politicians are, that you can exploit the mass media and the 24-hour news cycle by putting outrageous statements out there that don’t really have to be retracted. She’s pandering to all that, to the big slobbering news maw, which must be fed.

BF: “Politics” can be defined in a variety of highly personal ways; a history professor of mine liked to say that politics is who you sit next to, or don’t sit next to. Writing about the political by way of the personal is a common strategy in many literary traditions–South Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe. Do you see any “political” aspects to your own fiction, intentional or otherwise? (Shadow Play comes to mind, for me; I’ve also noticed that many of your conventionally attractive characters–the ones who might run for office–tend to be drawn as profoundly empty and narcissistic.)

CB: Well, it’s no longer a secret that the ambition required by national politics results in candidates who are typically empty and narcissistic. Newt Gingrich is the perfection of that type, after the loathesome preppy George W. Bush. There were certain kinds of politicians whom I remember from my youth such as Senator Philip Hart, Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale (whom I see sometimes these days in Lund’s grocery), and Elmer L. Anderson (a Republican governor)–they were not like that. But my adulthood has been a witness to massive political decline in the stature of public servants, always excepting Barack Obama. And, yes, my work has always been overtly or covertly political, and Shadow Play is the most overt example.

BF: There have been many political writers in American fiction, of course, but not to the same extent as in the cultures listed above. MFA and other writing programs are routinely criticized for producing navel-gazers, writers who wallow in the self rather than engage with the wider world. As a longtime teacher in and director of such programs, how do you feel about that criticism?

CB: It’s wrong. Many writers of my generation such as Russell Banks and Francine Prose and Jim Shepard and Edward P. Jones and Michelle Huneven are wonderfully and mindfully political, as are younger writers like George Saunders and Jess Row. MFA programs are routinely criticized by people who haven’t been in them or by people who don’t like public funding of the arts. Of course there are some navel-gazers. There always will be. But the really smart writers have their eyes open to the world and what’s going on in it. As William S. Burroughs said, “A paranoid-schizophrenic is a guy who just figured out what’s going on.”

*Obligatory disclaimer: The views presented here do not necessarily reflect those of the Prairie Schooner editorial staff.