Interviewer to Charles Baxter: What is the status of the short story?
Baxter: Beats me.
In The Missouri Review’s Spring 2008 issue, Marsha McSpadden and Trevor Gore interview Charles Baxter, author of four short story collections, three poetry collections, two essay collections and five novels, including Saul and Patsy, The Feast of Love and, most recently, The Soul Thief. Baxter has a rep for being an inspired teacher and a writer who is cooooool with an inordinate amount of o’s. Here is a particularly intriguing part of the interview in which he talks about the current state of the short story, common mistakes young writers make, how he hates and loves Raymond Carver, and makes a debatably sexist statement about Lorrie Moore.
Interviewer: What’s the status of the short story?
Baxter: Beats me. There usually has to be some writer in the culture who’s writing stories that get people so excited they want to write them, too. For me, it was Raymond Carver, and to an extent Grace Paley. Then it was Lorrie Moore. A lot of women want to write stories like that. I don’t know whether some of you feel that way about George Saunders–quite a few people have gone nuts over those stories. There are great young short story writers like Aimee Bender, Eric Puchner, George Saunders and Edward P. Jones. Poe would say the most powerful literary work would be poems or short stories because you can take them in during one sitting and they’ll have a cumulative effect. I wrote The Soul Thief so that you could read it in one afternoon and evening. Ideally, that’s how short stories work. When a short story really works, it changes your life, and it has that same effect because it hasn’t taken you a month and a half to read. I would think, in a culture in which we’re distracted all the time, people would want to go back to stories. I love that form. You can learn more about writing from short stories than you can by writing novels. If you make a mistake in a novel, you can go on to write another seven hundred pages before you’ve realized what your mistake was. The novel is a very forgiving form. I spent years of my life writing bad novels that were never published because I didn’t realize the mistakes I was making. I only really figured out how to do it by writing stories.
Interviewer: What were the mistakes?
Baxter: I thought it was enough to write great sentences and that I didn’t have to know how people actually behaved. I had those implausible characters. It was a kind of hallucinatory, bogus world. I was trying to impress people. I was thinking too much about the audience. I was gripped by a form of literary bad faith. You need to practice humility; I hadn’t achieved that. These novels were directed, absolutely, by these themes I wanted to prove about people. All the characters looked like puppets. It’s common among young writers to want to impress their readers. It’s a result of watching too much TV and too many movies where the filmmakers assume that you have a short attention span, so they keep setting Chevrolets on fire. That’s rhetoric. That’s not art.
Interviewer: You mentioned Carver. I’d like to know what your thoughts are on Tess Gallagher bringing out the original Carver stories instead of the stories edited by Gordon Lish.
Baxter: In many cases, the edited stories are half as long as Carver intended them to be. I kept What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on my desk and I would consult it often because it was an example of what I did not want to do. I did not want to write that kind of book. I loved the book. But I hated it too. You can learn the most from the books you don’t like. And that book was a very powerful example of the kind of writing I didn’t want to do. That was Lish. Not Carver.