Friday, April 2, 2010


I am reading Nicholson Baker’s new book, The Anthologist, and finding it wonderfully entertaining. Every night I look forward to getting into bed and diving in. It is like having a conversation with a funny, damaged, massively literate friend.

Nicholson Baker is a remarkable writer. I am certainly not the first person to say so, but I may be one of the first people to have recognized it. He was in a creative writing class I took in college. (I attended a women’s college, Bryn Mawr, which has a cooperative relationship with Haverford College, where Baker went.) I noticed him on the first day of the semester. He was very tall and very handsome, and I had never seen him before (which was noteworthy in and of itself: the two colleges were quite small and “tall and handsome” [at the same time] was a rare and highly visible attribute among Haverford men).

The class was taught by Christopher Davis, who told us that each of us would be required to submit eight pages (I think) of fiction, which would then be critiqued in class. I set confidently to work and produced a short story called “Summer on Goose Island.” Just writing the name fills me with horror. It was the story of a Tragic marriage, with lots of fog-swept sand dunes and execrable dialogue. I was rightly eviscerated in class for its many flaws, none of which I remember, as I threw the story away immediately on returning to my dorm room.

What I do remember, though, was being handed Nicholson Baker’s writing sample. It was twenty-six pages long and I thought, Oh, good Lord. I imagined that it was going to be an obvious attempt at suck-up-ery, that this Nicholson Baker, whoever he was, thought that twenty-six pages was his sure-fire route to an ‘A’.

I don’t remember what he wrote. I just remember that on page six, I looked up and said to my boyfriend, Oh, my God.

I don’t recall how the story was critiqued. I think Christopher Davis knew that he was in the presence of greatness. Nobody said much, except another Haverford student who made an ass out of himself by saying that the story “took too long to get going.” (There is one of these in every writers’ critique group I have ever been in.) Nicholson Baker didn’t say a word. He nodded and made a few notes.

After class, I went over to him and babbled something about how he was a genius. He smiled politely and said, “Thanks very much.” In that instant, I knew that Nicholson Baker was destined to travel in circles different from those I would inhabit. He was already a grownup, albeit with talents and sensibilities very few grownups possess. I knew that I wanted to be a writer; I knew that I was probably good enough to become one. But I also knew that I would never approach the deft, sure-handed brilliance that Nicholson Baker effortlessly commanded at the age of twenty.

It’s okay. I’ve accepted it.

Some people are just that good. And what I learned by being in class with Nicholson Baker is that most of us are not. Most of us have to work really, really hard and be very, very lucky.

And isn’t that just the greatest name for a writer? How did his parents know?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the post. Whenever I'm around someone who does what he/she does better than anyone else, or at least as good as the best, I'm so happy. It makes me feel secure. Am I a perpetual student?