The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter

the-art-of-subtextCharles Baxter is the editor of Graywolf Press’s The Art of series as well as the author of this installment. This is the second in the series that I’ve read (see The Art of History), and I’ll be reading two more this semester (Donald Revell’s The Art of Attention and Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir).

The first thing to note about this book of writing craft advice is that it is strongly geared toward fiction. Where the others tend to cross genres (well, I suppose the Memoir one won’t), Baxter refers to fiction throughout, and takes his examples from the fiction of Dostoyevsky, Melville, Edward P. Jones and others. While this made for interesting reading, it did not suit my personal needs as a nonfiction writer very well. (I was disappointed, especially as excerpts from Baxter-edited The Business of Memory have appealed to me.) I was drawn to the topic of subtext because I aim for subtext, or subtle themes, in my own writing. Subtext means something a little different to Baxter in this book.

He calls it in his introduction “the unspoken soul-matter,” and divides his thoughts into 6 sections. “Staging” refers to dramatic placement of characters in scene (as in stage directions). “The subterranean” refers to the difference between what characters truly want, and what they say they want. This is an interesting concept to ponder for characters in nonfiction as well, although all of Baxter’s examples come from fiction. “Unheard melodies” inspects how fictional characters fail to pay attention: think about short attention spans and the way we “uh-huh” each other without really listening. This kind of ignored dialog, he argues, is a great place for subtext. “Inflections” and tonal shifts mark a movement from the literal to the suggestive; and he makes the point here that tone is sometimes everything. Example: the phrase “you’re really something” could be spoken in disgust or adulation. On the page, the reader needs tonal cues.

“Creating a scene” refers to the way that phrase is used in everyday life and not by writers: that is, not writing “a scene” (action taking place in time and space) but in the sense that arguing in public is called “making a scene.” Baxter asserts that fiction writers must have their characters make scenes in order to get their conflicts out into the open, or in other words, to pose the central conflict of their plot. Finally, he writes about “loss of face,” or the use (or choice not to use) characters’ literal faces to communicate through gesture or appearance. He makes a curious argument that the description of faces has fallen away in modern fiction writing, which is another interesting claim to investigate, although not one I’m particularly invested in at this time. (Please report back.)

My single favorite line of this book, and one I can easily take into my own work:

In truly wonderful writing, the author pays close attention to inattentiveness, in all its forms.

That one I will carry forward and ponder. Within it there may be an opportunity to ponder the differences (for craft purposes) between fiction and nonfiction in general.

In short, an involving little book of lit crit focusing on fiction, and thus not outside my interests; but not terribly useful for my own writing. Your mileage may vary.


Rating: 6 Chekhov stories.

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