Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction

by Charles Baxter
ISBN: 1555972705

This is the sort of book that makes you want to go out and do one of two things after you read it: if you are at all inclined, it will make you think about your own fiction writing and pick up a pen or go sit at the keyboard, and if you are a serious reader it will make you want to go read a really good short story. By ‘serious reader’ I mean simply somebody who wants to think and feel their way through a piece of fiction, to consider how it was crafted, instead of just seeing how fast they can zip though it and say ‘yeah, I’ve read that.’

Baxter is a serious reader, and a writer. (I’ve read The Feast of Love, but none of his other fiction or his poetry — yet.) The essays in this volume were originally conceived as lectures and given at the MFA program for writers at Warren Wilson College. What I like about them is that they are not merely academic exercises or more pointless theory. Instead, they show a writer thinking his way through fiction in a deliberate enough way that you can follow his path.

There are nine essays: Dysfunctional Narratives, or: \”Mistakes Were Made\”, On Defamiliarization, Againt Epiphanies, Counterpointed Characterization, Rhyming Action, Maps and Legends of Hell: Notes on Melodrama, The Donald Barthelme Blues, and Stillness. In each of these he works towards his central point, uses great examples, and says what he means. I love things like this:

There is such a thing as the poetry of the mistake, and when you say, “Mistakes were made,” you deprive an action of its poetry, and you sound like a weasel. When you say, “I fucked up,” the action retains its meaning, its sordid origin, its obscenity, and its poetry.

He spends a fair amount of space in these essays talking about short stories, a form which doesn’t get the respect or attention it deserves. I found myself nodding my head in agreement many times as I read this book; Baxter has a knack for putting his finger on the things that bug me about how fiction is talked about, taught, or lauded, all without sounding like a crank.

If you are curious about what a writer thinks about writing, or want to see an intelligent take on the problems and challenges of fiction, you should read this book. It is high on thoughtful analysis and low on bullshit, and that isn’t something I come across very often on this topic.