The Art of the Subtext

This book is part of The Art of series, put out by the excellent Graywolf Press. Each book in the series examines, I am told on the back of the book, “a singular, but often assumed or neglected, issue facing the contemporary writer of fiction, nonfiction or poetry. The Art of series is meant to restore the art of criticism while illuminating the art of writing.” If this book is an example of the rest of the series.. bravo!

In The Art of the Subtext: Beyond Plot, Baxter explores what lurks beneath the obvious in fictional works — which is what imbues great fiction with its emotional power. When captured elegantly on the page, what the characters don’t say, what they suppress, and the secrets they keep, add a dimension to the work in a way nothing else can…

“those elements that propel readers beyond the plot of a novel or short story into the realm of what haunts the imagination: the implied, the half-visible, and the unspoken. That subterranean realm with its overcharged psychological materials…”

The New York Times Book Review said this about Baxter’s Burning Down the House:

“It is a pleasure to read, and it performs an important function — by mucking around in the problems that plague contemporary fiction, Burning Down the House may spur both readers and writers first to a recognition of guilty complicity and then to constructive thought.”

Something similar might be said about this excellent book — it is the sort of book that certainly gets one thinking, and what’s better than that for the writer who aims to improve her work?

…the discrepancy between what you ask for and what you get constitutes a story…these discrepancies are at the core of many great stories, and myths. This of Oedipus, famous forever for wanting the wrong thing, and getting it.

The vast scope of Baxter’s knowledge is one of the many pleasures of this book. He draws on works by Melville, Fitzgerald, Rainer Maria Rilke, Freud, Cheever, Katharine Ann Porter, Faulkner. Flannery O’Connor, J.F. Powers, Edward P. Jones, Lorrie, Moore, Dostoyevksy, Paula Fox…. well, the list goes on and on. One of the reasons it took me so long to read The Art of the Subtext was that I kept going back to my bookshelves, pulling out one of the works referred to, and re-reading it, with new understanding.

The book is also, at least in part, as much an extended essay on morality as it is on writing. The excellent essay, Loss of Face, at the end of the book exemplifies this. Baxter discusses how the description of physical attributes in fiction, faces specifically, have changed over the years. Baxter says his thoughts were triggered by a student who, when challenged on what Baxter considered to be an inadequate physical description of one of his characters, sort of crumbled:

“I can’t do that,” the student said, reluctantly but firmly.
“Why not?” I asked.
There was a pause, as the student – a thoughtful person – tried to explain. He had come up against a wall of some sort. Finally he said, “It’s too hard.” I was about to say to him that that was really no excuse, that the entire process of writing naturally brings everybody up against what is too hard to do and therefore has to be done, when he interrupted my thoughts by saying, “Besides, no one does that anymore.”
Ah, I thought, now that’s interesting. Our imaginations are failing us.

Baxter goes on to talk about how some artistic skills and practices are lost through “neglect or distaste or their inability to concentrate their imaginative forces.” He remarks that the student seems to be saying that people his age have forgotten how to describe faces, or are uncomfortable doing so. While admitting losing this skill is somewhat disturbing, since so much of our interaction has (at least until recently) been face to face and our ability to ‘read’ another person’s face is useful for far more than simply good fiction, he also investigates the problem of cultural project and racism. Can we, in this age, use physical attributes as a way to imply psychological, or even moral, characteristics?

Whose faces do we put into our stories, and whose faces are we able to read? Some faces we see often, others not at all. We are permitted, even compelled, to see the faces of certain public figures almost every day, but we are not particularly encouraged to see the faces of many others, whom we can describe as the dispossessed, the disinherited, and the vanquished. Sometimes we don’t want to see those faces at all because of the demands they place on us. In this way, a literary question quickly becomes a political one.

And later:

The problem of seeing a face, of acknowledging its reality, its connection to a human being who has a separate identity from ours, leads to the problem of obligation, which makes many people uncomfortable. Obligations are often unpleasant and difficult to discharge. This is a point make repeatedly by the French philosopher Emmanual Levinas in his meditations on the face. If I understand him correctly, Levinas argues that the face is the unique physical presence that provokes the subject’s obligations to the Other. The face is not abstract. There would be, by implication, always the necessity therefore to see the face of my enemy, to acknowledge it, and all those to whom I wish to deny a face; my humanity requires such a recognition, particularly in moments of social crisis.

One of the many useful tidbits Baxter provides is in the essay, Unheard Melodies, about we chose not to hear, what we filter out.

It may seem strange to say so, but the great fallacy of most written dialogue in fiction of our time is that all the characters are listening. But everyone knows that we have grown into a nation of nonlisteners. What gives the writing of Eugene O’Neill, Tony Kushner, Lorrie Moore, Paul Fox and William Gaddis its particular distinction is the notice it has taken of what people do no notice. In truly wonderful writing, the author pays close attention to inattentiveness, in all its forms.
In fiction, the forms of evasion are every bit as interesting, conversationally, as truth telling.

That’s the sort of writing-about-writing that gets me fired up, and I plan to ask my students to read this book.

Charles Baxter is the author of ten books, including The Feast of Love, a finalist for the National Book Award, and Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. He is also a professor at the University of Minnesota. Lucky students.


  1. […] Baxter, the author of many good books indeed (you can see my review of his splendid book, THE ART OF THE SUBTEXT, here)  was interviewed for “Glimmer Train” and he said there are five questions a writer […]

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