The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot

by Charles Baxter
ISBN: 9781555974732

I was impressed with Baxter’s earlier collection of essays (Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction) so I’ve been looking forward to reading this one.

One of the many things I like about reading Baxter on fiction is that he isn’t only a theorist or critic, he’s a writer, and a damn good one. (See two previous posts for examples: Believers or A Relative Stranger or get yourself to the fiction section of just about any bookstore and pick up whatever they have by him, maybe The Feast of Love.) He’s invested as a writer and a reader. A substantial part of the pleasure in reading this book is seeing how someone with Baxter’s investments thinks about stories.

He says what he thinks, which is incredibly refreshing. No attempts at profundity via obsfucation, no couching arguments in tortured theoretical constructs, he clearly articulates ideas and provides examples to illustrate his points. Genius, really, and fun to read if you are any sort of story geek.

So what is he up to? In his own words,

Think of these essays, then, as the reports of a private investigator, examining a few stories with a magnifying glass, looking for the secret panel, the hidden stairway, the lovingly concealed dungeon, and the ghosts moaning from beneath the floor.

I could quote line after line from the pages I dogeared, but here are just two, to show the flavor of Baxter’s writing:

Except for adolescent infatuations, which are too everyday, there’s nothing like a good usuable obsession to provide an interesting story. (“Digging the Subterranean”)

If you are looking for the soul, watch for bad manners, which are definitive. [talking about Dostoyevsky’s antagonists in “Creating a Scene”]

Okay, I lied — one more, because it is one of my favorites:

Fiction is that place where human beings do not have to be better than they really are, where characters can and should confront each other, where they must create scenes, where desire will have its day, where all truth is beautiful. Fiction is the antidote to the conduct manual. (“Creating a Scene”)

It is one of my favorite lines because it gets at why I care about stories, why I want other people to care about and pay attention to stories: they are vehicles that let us be more human than we otherwise, sometimes, are willing to let ourselves be with each other. They can help make sense of the daily madness. What Baxter is doing in this book is helping to make deeper sense of stories, what makes them tick. Highly recommended.

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