In his essay, Baxter discusses the degree to which Americans “have distrusted silence and its parent condition, stillness.”
Recently, I gave a lecture at my final MFA residency in Vermont, where I talked about Charles Baxter’s essay “Stillness” in his collection Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, published over a decade ago. In his essay, Baxter discusses the degree to which Americans “have distrusted silence and its parent condition, stillness.” He asserts that silence is often associated with “madness, mooncalfing, woolgathering, laziness, hostility, and stupidity.” The negative associations and perceived value of silence and stillness in American culture is further exacerbated by the value placed on “vitality” in our culture, which in our postmodern society, has “everything to do with speed and talk,” according to Baxter. He argues that, in our postmodern society, “speed and information, combined through data processing, have moved into cyberspace.” In other words, we are more connected now than in any previous eras, and are therefore placed in a position where we have to process large amounts of information in a timely manner.
As a result of this “peculiar and immeasurable speed of language” in contemporary society, Baxter believes that fiction writers are plagued with what he refers to as “information sickness.” He cites the critic Walter Benjamin, who showed concern that an abundance of information in daily life would “block the experience of being transported by the storyteller.” In other words, it’s the writer’s job to transform information at the data level into a story with which readers can experience and relate. The constant bombardment of information, however, threatens the writer’s ability to transform data into fiction, thus trapping the reader at the data level as well.
So in a culture that devalues silence and stillness, and in a society where speed and violence is favored over slowness, how does an author sustain the reader’s attention by slowing down narrative time? Baxter argues that there are many ways in which an author can keep the reader engaged with silence and stillness. He points out that while silence is often thought of as “being a blank, a null set, or of all silences being similar, expressing the same thing, the same nothing,” it actually serves as an “intensifier” that can strengthen “whatever stands on either side of it.” In other words, silence can be colored by different emotions depending on the scene it “flows through or flows between,” thus creating a specific kind of stillness that intensifies mood and character.
Silence and stillness in fiction also give the reader the ability to experience a character’s “absorption” of the minute details of his/her setting, thus deepening the reader’s experience of characterization. Instead of a forward-moving plot, the story pauses temporarily so the reader can take in the layers of experience and sensory perceptions the character has to offer. Baxter describes the experience in this way:
Instead of the forward dramatic line we (at least temporarily) have the absorption of the character into the minutiae of the setting. The dynamics of fear and desire are momentarily displaced by a rapt attention to small details, to the cultivation of a moment’s mood for its own sake without any nervous straining after insight.
The Rumpus: In your essay “Stillness,” published over a decade ago, you discuss contemporary society’s distrust of silence and its fascination with speed and information. How have your views on technology shifted (or not) since then?
Charlie Baxter: I’m afraid that they haven’t. Speed (which is sometimes confused with efficiency) is still considered laudable; by contrast, people often speak of slowness as if it were deplorable.
Rumpus: You make a connection between narrative violence and data processing: both have speed in common. You also point out that we don’t notice action as much as readers did “in previous centuries.” It has turned into a type of narcotic – we need it but we’re not interested in it.
Baxter: Yes. Speed is of course addictive. As is a fascination with violence—everything else starts to look dull by comparison. In this way, we habituate ourselves to excitement, but as one commentator observed, “There is no boredom like the boredom of being excited all the time.”
Rumpus: What’s at stake if writers suffer from the “information sickness” you describe in your essay – when information overload blocks the writer’s ability to transform data into experience? What kind of defense is there against information sickness? Meditation perhaps?
Baxter: Good fiction doesn’t just convey information; it conveys—imparts—an experience. Meditation might help as a path to a reacquaintance with silence. But nothing works so well as a judicious shutting-down of screen culture: computer screens particularly.
Rumpus: You wrote your essay “Stillness” as a lecture for an MFA program, but I’m wondering what triggered this topic for you. Had you been reading work by contemporary authors and/or students that focused more on constitutive events that move the story forward as opposed to supplementary events that occur at the periphery of a story? What constitutes a supplementary event in fiction, and how do you define the difference between the two?
Baxter: I’d been reading the work of Wright Morris, whose novels are beautiful but static. He never quite gained the audience he deserved because his fiction is so demanding (he was a great photographer whose subject was lastingness: he loved to photograph objects that had withstood the weathers of time). His books require your complete concentration. They’re quite uncompromising in that regard. In Morris’s work, almost everything seems to be a supplement; there are almost no constitutive events in his work. If you can imagine stories or novels made up entirely of subplots, you’ll have an idea of what he was up to.
Rumpus: One of your personal interests in stillness in fiction has to do with “its benign features and the great difficulty we have in expressing them.” You pose the important question: “…how does anyone get [expressive air-pockets of dead silence] into fiction, where the flow of words must continue line by line, page by page, until the whole thing stops?” In an interview with David Means, he says that the writer can’t make conscious decisions to slip in stillness in the work, “You can’t just say: I’ll slip some stillness in here, and some more here.”
Baxter: With all due respect, I think you can slip in such moments, but you can’t just write the word “Silence” and expect the reader to experience that silence. You have to write about what’s happening at the peripheries of the scene: a door is opening, a floor creaks, the water dribbles out of the tap, the wind blows the curtains into the room. It’s through these small events that we experience that sense of stillness, which is, of course, a quality, not a thing-in-itself. So you give the quality to the objects.
Rumpus: I love Edward P. Jones’s collection Lost In The City, particularly his story “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” which is filled with silence and stillness. Can you recommend other works or authors who achieve a similar effect?
Baxter: There are so many. Virginia Woolf, of course, and the great Japanese novelist and short story writer Kawabata. Start with his Palm of the Hand stories. I’ve mentioned Wright Morris. Hemingway likes to write scenes of dangerous stillness, full of menace: the last two or three pages of “The Killers,” for example. There’s a kind of ecstatic stillness in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Many poets have addressed the subject: Gary Snyder, Robert Bly. Many, many others.
Rumpus: “If, however, we have truly lost the ability to be interested in stillness … we will have lost the capacity to be accurate about an entire dimension of our experiences.” Can you comment on this statement in your essay?
Baxter: There can be great narrative interest in a man or a woman sitting quietly, if only you surround that person with an interesting narrative context. There can be great narrative interest in slow art, in the nothing-happening moment. These may be the very moments, in fact, that lead to real enlightenment. No one was ever enlightened by a car crash. But stillness requires a kind of patience, a putting-aside of restlessness. That requires discipline, and not everyone has the strength or patience to get there. So be it.