A Minnesotan, a graduate of the liberal arts, and a longtime teacher of the art of writing, Charles Baxter’s work delivers grace, intelligence, and a sly, Midwestern wit. Before he brings all of it to campus on Tuesday, April 25, we asked him a few questions.
Gustavus: What can the study of the liberal arts as an undergraduate do for a person? How did it shape you into the writer and thinker you are now?
CB: In brief: the liberal arts are traditionally those that teach us to think critically about any and all subjects that we might meet up with in life. They mean to acquaint us with the important ideas and works of art and other monuments of the spirit that have shaped human history, especially so that we do not fear ideas; we should feel free, knowing human history, to come up with some ideas and artworks of our own. In a practical country like ours, the liberal arts are often under siege by those who believe that education should mean vocational training. But what a liberal arts education should teach us is how to think, and to recognize lies when we hear them.
Gustavus: What should Minnesota’s undergraduates know about writing—discovering life and themselves through it?
CB: Writing is a craft like any other, and any craft takes time and patience and hard work to learn. To practice an art, you have to be a person who wants to go through an apprentice phase, and you have to be stubborn, and you have to be inner-directed, because most of your family and friends will not be particularly encouraging about your pursuit. Probably you need to discover a good part of life before you sit down to write about it. But writing can also teach you, or can encourage you, to practice empathy, which is what you do when you imagine someone who is not like you, and you create that person on the page, and you turn that imaginary construct into a living, breathing person.
Gustavus: How does reading literature make us more human, and how can we foster that in ourselves?
CB: Reading literature should lead us to an understanding of people who are not like us, and literature can also provide us with models, both positive and negative, for how people behave under dramatic circumstances. One answer to the question of “Why are you telling me story?” is “Because it’s about you, and about people whom you’ve never met, but might meet, someday.” One reason to read literature is to enlarge your sense of empathy, especially now; our culture seems to be undergoing a crisis of empathy, or a lack of it.
Gustavus: Minnesota. What makes us special as writers and readers of literature? And what can we gain from “reading” Minnesota?
CB: Minnesota can boast of some wonderful writers who were born here or lived here much of their lives. But they would have been hard-pressed to say what was “special” about them or about their readers. The literature of Minnesota has often been concerned with small towns and lives that have been circumscribed by somewhat narrow circumstances. There is a great sense of solitude and quiet-ism among our writers and readers, a feeling for the inner life. But as we all grow more urban and spend more time on social media, that may all change. We’ll see.
Charles Baxter will visit the Gustavus campus on Tuesday, April 25, from 7 to 8 p.m. for a fiction reading in the Melva Lind Interpretive Center of the Linnaeus Arboretum. He will be hosted by the Gustavus Department of English and Writing Center as the final guest of this year’s Bards in the Arb series. The event is free and open to the public.
Charles Baxter is the author of There’s Something I Want You to Do, a finalist for the Story Prize in 2016. He has published three novels, four books of stories, and two books of essays on fiction writing. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, and Harper’s, among other journals and magazines. His fiction has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories seven times, eleven times in The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and translated into many languages. A finalist for the National Book Award, Baxter has received the Award of Merit in the Short Story and the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Rea Award in the Short Story. He now lives in Minneapolis and is currently the Edelstein-Keller Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota.
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