Twenty years ago, Charles Baxter named the unsettling traits of America’s then-adolescent “culture of deniability” and what its “dysfunctional narratives” meant for politics and fiction.
I recently read “Dysfunctional Narratives: or: ‘Mistakes Were Made,’” the first essay in Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House. This collection on the craft of writing was published in 1997, which means the discussion about who, precisely, is to blame for the prevalence of what Baxter calls a culture of deniability in politics, life, and fiction (he thinks it’s finally Nixon), was written before Bill Clinton parsed the manifold definitions of the word is. Certainly, his warnings about the passive language behind statements like “mistakes were made” have not been heeded in what passes, now, for the exchange of moral and political ideas emanating from centers of institutionalized power. That said, there’s an absolute brilliance to Baxter’s synthesis of the mores native to what wasn’t, after all, the end of history.
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