Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Charles Baxter Sucks

I'm in a fiction MFA program, and one thing you learn at programs like mine is to worship certain writers. You know which ones. They're the big, heavy, talented writers with awards galore and whole Barnes and Noble sections to themselves. There's not that many of them and by and large they deserve our awe and respect. But you know who doesn't deserve my awe and respect, no matter what NYU, the National Book Award, or the O. Henry Award's got to say about it?

Charles Baxter.

I used to be a Charles Baxter fan. Back when I was 17 and first read The Feast of Love, I was into the idea of a quirky girl and sweet-hearted guy falling into impoverished, adolescent, Midwestern love. So, apparently, was the National Book Award panel - they named Feast of Love a finalist. Then, a few years later, I read Saul and Patsy, another Baxter novel about a quirky girl and sweet-hearted guy falling into impoverished, early-twenties, Midwestern love. Last year, for an NYU assignment, I tried to read Baxter's story collection, The Believers, but soon abandoned it because it started with this piece of shit story about a quirky girl and sweet-hearted guy who fall into impoverished, early-twenties, Midwestern love.

Look, I know that Baxter's written other stuff. He's got a lot of books out, and I've only read those mentioned. And there's no way every one can be about adorably unique youth falling into fairy tale rapture. But I'll never know. Because I'm fucking done with Baxter and his cheesy, self-conscious, weirdly lecherous exploration of young girls' sexuality.

By way of explanation, I present to you some thoughts on Kiss Away, the opening story in The Believers, recipient of a second place O. Henry Award, and a perfect example of why Charles Baxter is a shitty writer:

1. The boy's name is Glaze. Not really. His given name is the not-much-more-believable Walton, but he goes by Glaze because he likes donuts and staring off into space. His clever dog's name is Einstein.

I know. Glaze? Because he likes donuts?

2. Glaze falls asleep for the sole purpose of letting Baxter describe his appearance for a full page while Jodie, the girl, looks at him lovingly.

She liked the feeling of his hair in her fingers. It was like managing a small profit after two quarters of losses.

She was sitting again on the floor pillow when he woke up five minutes later. He shook his head and rubbed his face with his hands. He looked over to where Jodie was sitting. "Hi," he said.

"Here's 'hi' coming' back at you," she said. She waved all the fingers of her right hand at him.
What the fuck? First of all, putting your character to sleep so you can describe him is completely pussy. Second of all, like managing a small profit after two quarters of losses is a really bad, really inappropriate simile to come from the perspective of a girl with no money, no job, and no desire to get either. It would be much more appropriate to...I dunno...a rich, middle-aged, male academic. Like Baxter. Third of all, that "hi comin' back at you" little wave thing she does is so nauseatingly self-conscious. You can just see, with every page that passes, Baxter struggling to come up with something else "cute" for Jodie to do that she or another of his under-aged, overly-sexed protagonists hasn't already done.

3. As with his other books, people never just fuck in Baxter's world. They have soulmate sex that rocks the very center of their being every single time:
She was embarrassed by how quickly and effortlessly he made her come. She put her arms up above her head and just gave in. Women were supposed to take longer than this. Her swift ecstasy made her feel cheap. Maybe it was his slow fire burning away down on her. When she came the first time, a window shade flew up in her mind, and she could see all of her feelings waiting to be touched and moved, like passengers in a bus station. When she called out, she discovered it was Walton's name she was calling. She kissed all of his scars. She kissed his knuckles...When she looked back at him, she let him see into her soul, all the way down, where she'd never allowed anyone to own her nakedness before.
That's just awful, both as literature and as a sex scene. And even if we let the sentimentality and cliches and really bad bus station simile pass, there's still the fact it's absolutely unbelievable. It's like Baxter never actually had sex as a young person and so never learned that, largely, it sucks. Particularly for girls. They don't feel "cheap at their swift ecstasy." They feel pissed that their sweaty-faced partner can't keep it going for more than twenty seconds. They don't "discover it was their lover's name they were calling." They keep it fucking quiet, because the don't want to wake their roommate sleeping ten feet away.

4. Last but not least, just two pages before the forty-page story ends, we get smacked in the face with a laundry list of why we should like Jodie as much as Glaze and Baxter do:
Let me explain something, Walton is saying. You're beautiful. It started with that the first time I saw you. He does a little inventory: You lick your fingers after opening tin cans, you wear hats at a jaunty angle, you have a quick laugh like a bark, you move like a dancer, you're funny, you're great in bed, you love my dog, you're thoughtful, you have opinions. It's the whole package. How can I not love you?
Indeed. Baxter is the Cameron Crowe of literature - he can't get over quirky young love, so much so that his worshipful treatment of his characters makes them fake, unlikable, unbelievable, and despite all his desperate attempts, uninteresting. You lick your fingers after opening tin cans? It's like Baxter sat there, fingers poised over the keyboard, tongue sticking out of the side of his mouth, searching furiously for that last little detail that's really going to make this girl pop. An O. Henry prize. Really?

But who knows. This guy has won a lot of awards. He founded an MFA program. Maybe it's just me. Maybe the three things I've read are a bad sampling of his work. Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about.


Maybe it's the fact that I, unlike many reviewers and academics and awards panelists, have read my fair share of Danielle Steel, so I know a flowery, self-satisfied, repetitive romance novelist when I see one.


cynthia said...

i see a future in literary criticism. or maybe just a lawsuit. god bless free speech.

Stuey said...

Yes, yes, and yes. From memory, let me quote the worst line of fiction written in the 90s, from one of Baxter's 'Saul and Patsy' stories that came before the novel.

Saul and Patsy are in a car crash. They emerge unscathed, but the car is totalled. They exchange a meaningful look, and Patsy says, "Smell the Earth, Saul. It's loamy."

Not "Oh my God, are you okay?" Or "Jesus fucking Christ!"

No, he gives us "Smell the earth, Saul. It's loamy."


didi979 said...

Mir - this was hilarious.

I agree that, "You lick your fingers after opening tin cans?", is about as romantic as, "you pick your nose and eat it!!!!!"

O.k., I got a good laught out of that one!

Robin said...

Your writing should be syndicated...we're all hooked around here and waiting for the next installment each day!

kate said...

The Feast of Love is a movie coming out this fall. We're going, my treat, you earned with this one...

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