Reflections on a Fiction Writer's Craft —The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter

The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot

The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot
BY Charles Baxter
(Graywolf Press, 2007)

From the Publisher:

“Fiction writer and essayist Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext discusses and illustrates the hidden subtextual overtones and undertones in fictional works haunted by the unspoken, the suppressed, and the secreted. As Baxter notes in one essay, ‘A novel is not a summary of its plot but a collection of instances, of luminous specific details that take us in the direction of the unsaid and unseen.’ Using an array of examples from Melville and Dostoyevsky to contemporary writers Paula Fox, Edward P. Jones, and Lorrie Moore, Baxter explains how fiction writers create those visible and invisible details, how what is displayed evokes what is not displayed.”

Anyone who follows a book of criticism provocatively titled Burning Down the House (1997) with the staid The Art of Subtext (2007) has to be up to something. The first bursts out of the box of convention, the second sets itself politely in a long line of definitive, respectable tomes ranging from Sun Tzu’s 6th century B.C. military treatise, The Art of War, to pioneering food writer M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating (1954).

Author Charles Baxter, it turns out, intends to play it both ways in his recent book, winner of the 2008 Minnesota Book Award for General Nonfiction and the first volume in The Art of Series, edited by Baxter and issued by Graywolf Press. Subtitled Beyond Plot, The Art of Subtext is a collection of six essays that examine subtle aspects of the fiction writer’s craft. Though ordered differently, three — “The Art of Staging,” “Digging the Subterranean,” and “Creating a Scene” — are about the way skillful poets, storytellers, and dramatists capitalize on the physical and unspoken aspects of social interaction; the other three — “Unheard Melodies,” “Inflection and the Breath of Life,” and “Loss of Face” — are more about modern-day life and its effect on the way readers read and the way good writers write.

At his best, his flexible assumption of voices and personas results in imaginative writing…

Over the course of the six chapters, Baxter takes on different tones, alternating between that of the lecturer, the instigator, the academic, and the raconteur. As a critic, he exhibits a fearlessness with words and ideas that marks him as a practitioner of the form he studies; Baxter is also the author of novels such as The Feast of Love in addition to collections of poetry and short stories. Accordingly, he never stints in The Art of Subtext with metaphors, similes, juicy adjectives, and little literary plays. At his best, his flexible assumption of voices and personas results in imaginative writing far more lively than the spare design and solemn title of the book would imply.

Within the high energy and drama of his style, moreover, there are smaller moments of keen observation that come as a revelation. In particular, two moments with artwork come to mind: in “The Art of Staging,” Charles Baxter notes acutely that paintings most like dreams “have a strange and seemingly unnecessary accumulation of detail, a chronic fixation.” His deeply sympathetic description of Francisco Goya’s 1820 Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta in “Loss of Face,” similarly, gathers the visual information of the painting (printed in the book) and enriches it through a vivid and telling portrait in prose. He points out the artist’s hand at the bottom of the work, for example, tugging “in a cramped gesture at the bedsheets, a characteristic movement of the dying.” In these moments, Baxter teaches the reader, by example, how to see.

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