Baxter: No winners or losers in practice of writing
Author Charles Baxter has attended a remarkable number of Hopwood Award ceremoniesnearly 30, by his recollection, between 1974-2003. Attendance is one thing, but delivering the keynote lecture as he did April 21 is another.
For the 75th anniversary of the iconic U-M writing awards, Baxter was invited to return to the campus at which he taught for 14 years, and in doing so joined an impressive Hopwood lecture roster of celebrated writers and speakers that includes Saul Bellow, Arthur Miller, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, John Barth, E.L. Doctorow, Lawrence Kasdan and Joyce Carol Oates.
The initial effect of inclusion in such a directory of literary excellence was fear, Baxter said. "I was scared. I looked at the list and tried to imagine myself a part of it. They are winners, winners each and every one, and excellent writers all. But I was able to shake off that fear, and I realized that I had something to say, too."
A likely understatement, considering Baxter's prolific output and the esteem in which readers and writers alike hold him. A member and sometimes director of the writing faculty within the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program from 1989 until his departure from Ann Arbor in 2003, Baxter is the author of four novels ("Saul and Patsy," "The Feast of Love," "Shadow Play" and "First Light"), four short story collections ("Harmony of the World," "Through the Safety Net," "A Relative Stranger" and "Believers"), three collections of poems ("Chameleon," "The South Dakota Guidebook" and "Imaginary Paintings"), and "Burning Down the House," a book of essays on the craft of fiction writing. He is a frequent editor of works by others, and currently is writing a yet-untitled book of new and collected stories. Baxter teaches writing at the University of Minnesota.
Early in his address in Rackham Auditorium, Baxter challenged the notion of art as a competitive endeavor and shifted the focus of the event to one that would "celebrate winners, and losers, and then abolish both categories."
"I don't want to spoil your fun on this day of celebration, " Baxter said, "But my mission for the next few minutes is to argue that, for reasons that are more complex than they may first appear, the practice of writing produces no winnersand no losers, either, not ever."
"The truth is that in worldly terms someone is always doing better than you are," Baxter said. "Someone else is always winning more of the prizes, or making more money, or getting more famous. When you open the paper, someone else's picture is likely to be splashed across the book page. And when no one else seems to care what you do, you will have to find your own consolation. In this way a literary problem converts itself into a spiritual one.
"But if you appear faithfully at your desk, pledging yourself to the work, eventually a spirit of some sort will descend upon you, and you will write without any sense that time is passing. And you won't care who loves your work and who doesn't. And when that happens, no one on Earth is doing better than you are," he added.
Baxter's remarks were preceded by a welcome from President Mary Sue Coleman, who acknowledged the importance of the awards program on the development of new writers within the University.
"The money, and the honor, of a Hopwood Award are validationa very public confirmation that the winner is indeed on the right track," Coleman said. "The proof of that sits in this auditorium with distinguished Hopwood winners who moved on from Michigan to successful careers as novelists, playwrights, journalists and screenplay writers.
"For 75 years this magnificent awards program has validated the importance of writers, and writing, at the University of Michigan," Coleman added. "It is a welcome ritual we will again carry out this afternoon, and for years to come, because of Avery Hopwood, his gift of farce, and his legacy of generosity and inspiration."
A reception for Baxter, Hopwood winners and guests was held immediately after the lecture. Later in the evening, members of the U-M writing community gathered in the Michigan Union ballroom for dinner, discussion and dancing.
The Hopwood lecture was the culmination of a months-long series of events, including readings by authors Elizabeth Kostova, Elwood Reid and Porter Shreve, and poet Alice Fulton; screenings of films written by Hopwood winners Lawrence Kasdan, Arthur Miller and David Newman; a production of Avery Hopwood's play "Gold Diggers"; and the release of "The Hopwood Award: 75 Years of Prized Writing," an anthology of works by noted Hopwood winners, edited by Nicholas Delbanco, Andrea Beauchamp and Michael Barrett.
The Hatcher Graduate Library Special Collection Room is housing "Avery Hopwood's Legacy: Literary Descendants at Michigan," an exhibit of photos, books and papers by Hopwood Award-winning authors Henry Van Dyke, Nancy Willard, Marge Piercy and Emery George. The exhibit is open to the public and will run until June 24.
For more information on Hopwood 75th anniversary events, visit www.lsa.umich.edu/english/hopwood/75thAnniversary.asp. Information on the Hopwood Awards can be found www.lsa.umich.edu/english/hopwood/hopwood_awards.asp.