Monday, July 26, 2010

The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter

The newest Spotlight Series blog tour is on Graywolf Press. Graywolf has been around since 1974 and has become one of the largest and most interesting indie publishers in the country. Their catalog is wide-ranging and includes not only fiction and poetry, but a significant amount of cultural criticism and creative writing texts.

The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter is (as you might have been able to guess) part of Graywolf’s creative writing “The Art of...” series, which aims to provide small, erudite and useful texts on “a singular craft issue.” The book is aimed at creative writing students, but could be enjoyed by general readers, especially fans of the author’s Baxter spends the most time analyzing.

Baxter defines “subtext” as “the implied, the half-visible, and the unspoken” deeper truths that lie beneath the best fiction. The important stuff that characters, and narrators, only partially admit, but that is necessary for true emotional depth in fiction.

This sounds really vague doesn’t it? And it is vague, as Baxter admits in his introduction, but he does a good job of using multiple examples of different authors employing the same narrative techniques in order to convey the subtext to the reader.

For example, in the first section “The Art of Staging,” Baxter takes Frost’s poem “Home Burial” and analyzes the “staging” of the characters. Here’s the opening lines of the poem:

“He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him. She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.”

Baxter’s close reading begins by focusing on both characters being in the cramped space of a stairwell; he advises the reader that putting characters into a tight space is a “profitable situation for a dramatist” because it can spark the characters into interesting actions. He then explains that while the wife in this poem is at the top of the stairs and looking down on her husband, the husband still retains some power because he’s looking at her without her realizing it. Frost gives us a quick snapshot of tension, power and with her over the should glance, a reference to a secret.

This sort of practical close reading, which focuses on the mechanics of character interaction as much as the words that are being said, is similar to what Baxter does throughout the novel.

Baxter does a good job of mixing canonical writers (Dostoevsky and Melville) with newer authors (Paula Fox and Edward P. Jones), but I think his book could have been stronger if it included more scenes that more readers would be familiar with. I know this runs the risk of excluding important texts, and helps reinforce the troubling notion of the “canon,” but it would also make it easier on the reader. I’m all for including overlooked voices, but his first example comes from Obabakoak by Bernado Atxaga (yeah, I don’t know).

I think the only measure of whether or not creative writing books are useful is if you can immediately feel their effect in your own reading or writing. One of the most striking sections in Baxter’s book, and the one that has stuck with me the most, is the final chapter “Loss of Face.”

Baxter is troubled by the lack of facial descriptions in modern literature. He compares writers such as Dickens and Hardy who take the time to evaluate and describe a character’s face, to modern writers such as Don DeLillo who do not. Oftentimes, in the older, more traditional novels, the face becomes a very literal indicator of the “soul” of the character. Villains have deep set eyes and craggy faces while heroes and heroines have pure eyes and clear skin. But nowadays it feels wrong to “[judge] a person’s character on the evidence of how that person looks.” Socially, we’re all trained (theoretically) to look beyond appearances and demeanor and other indicators that could be class or race-based.

However, while Baxter understands to a certain extent the cultural reasons for our shift away from facial descriptions, he does mourn its loss and sees it as a frequent cop-out by the author. He starts this chapter by quoting a student who says he doesn’t like to write faces because, very simply, “It’s too hard.”

In my own writing I’ve made the choice not to describe character’s physically because I feel like readers picture the characters their own way anyways, and because at times I think a racial/cultural anonymity can create an interesting tension.

But I do have to admit that Baxter has a point, and my hesitance could be me taking the easy way out through fancy terms and writerly excuses. So I’ve decided to give faces to all the characters in the story I'm currently working on. And it’s really hard. After reading Baxter’s book I’ve also become more aware of writers who choose to or choose not to describe their character’s faces. Many of the beginning writers whose work I read in lit. journals, both those stories published and those that don’t make it out of the slush pile, really have abandoned the face. However, I’m also reading Outerbridge Reach by Robert Stone; Stone is a stately, old fashioned kind of writer and we see exactly what all his characters look like, and the effect is bracing because of its unfamiliarity and yet also wonderful when handled properly.

At a breezy 180ish pages, Baxter’s entry is a quick and enlightening read. This book is valuable to creative writers because he reminds us of how important it is to slow down and pull apart a text in order to see how it works. I think many writers are used to doing this anyways, but it’s helpful to have a guide through some examples in order to remind us how it’s done.  

  • Baxter, who is also the series editor for “The Art of,” teaches at the University of Minnesota and has published several novels, collections of short stories, works of criticism and even some poems. More on him can be found on his website.


  1. Wow, this DOES sound like a difficult subject to tackle. I find the point about modern characters' facial features very interesting- I don't think I have noticed that in my reading much more recently, but now I'll try and look out for it.

  2. Glad you reviewed this one - thanks! Looks like it's worth checking out. It was interesting to hear about how you viewed it through a writing lens too.