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Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction

4.13  ·  Rating Details ·  1,043 Ratings  ·  101 Reviews
"Lately I've been possessed of a singularly unhappy idea: The greatest influence on American fiction for the last twenty years may have been Richard Nixon." What happens to American fiction in a time when villains are deprived of their villainy; when our consumer culture insists on happy endings? Did Richard Nixon start a trend of dysfunctional narration that is now rife t ...more
Paperback, 256 pages
Published May 26th 2004 by Graywolf Press (first published 1997)
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Mike Puma
Sep 23, 2010 Mike Puma rated it really liked it
Shelves: lit-crit, 2010
Beware on this one! (Emphasis greatly exaggerated). Don’t believe the reviewers on this title—believe Baxter, the author. Many reviewers (and I suspect they are authors or aspiring authors) suggest that their interests in this title is what the title is about—consequently, you’ll see many reviewers describe Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction as a book for writers, on writing as a ‘craft’ (as if this book has how-to potential), or on the act of writing fiction. These reviewers aren’t lying ...more
May 09, 2008 Steven rated it it was amazing
His focus--as is the focus of most books on writing from the faculties of American Creative Writing programs (or books aimed at their students)--is on Realism, the so called well-made realist story. Keeping that focus caveat in mind, this is the best book about writing fiction I’ve ever read. I’ve read it through thrice, and some of the essays five or six times, and every time through I find something new and powerful. The unspoken message of these essays is to forget everything you think a stor ...more
Oct 07, 2015 Taka rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Really, really good--

The essays on dysfunctional narratives, defamiliarization, epiphanies, inanimate objects, and melodrama were so full of insights that they more than make up for the less-than-stellar essays in this collection.

Especially eye-opening for me were the essays on epiphanies, inanimate objects, and melodrama—these in particular made me excited to write fiction again. One of the things I appreciate about his essays is that despite his polemical titles (e.g., "Against Epiphanies") h
Feb 23, 2012 Brian rated it it was amazing
Charles Baxter's talents as a superb writer, especially of short fiction, are well known. His recently published collection of his best short stories "Gryphon" is a virtuoso display of talent, cataloging his finest work over an amazing career. I've found that it is a rarity that great fiction writers can make the transition to be great essayists, especially when it comes to writing on the subject of "writing". Authors often take a reductive path of explaining the art and it often turns into a di ...more
Oct 17, 2009 Shane rated it really liked it
A series of academic essays on off-beat literary topics. I have to grant the author credit for venturing into these contentious areas. In his words, he is "burning down the house." Some of the issues raised, points made, or just left to our judgement are:

1) Plot driven vs. Epiphanic story - the author seems to argue that despite the majority of post WWII literature being epiphanic (50%-80% since 1940), and with most short stories falling into this category, epiphanic does not work for him becaus
Kind of a master class between covers. Baxter's essays are less nuts-and-bolts craft oriented and more extended deep thoughts about literature and story and how they work. As such, the pieces feel like long graduate seminars that push you to more deeply consider how writing works. Every essay in this book is terrific, though several stood out for me for personal reasons—an encomium to Donald Barthelme; a long consideration of the worth of melodrama (and its sort-of complement, an essay about dys ...more
Apr 14, 2011 Gladia rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I doubt I was able to fully understand and take advantage of Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House, but I surely enjoyed it. This is a collection of essays on fiction that the author put together while teaching at the MFA program at the University of Michigan. I enjoy the finished product of a book of fiction on a regular basis but I rarely, if ever, stop and observe the structure of what I have in front of my eyes.

One of the first such essays is on ‘Dysfunctional Narratives’ and I love the ca
Julia Fierro
Nov 19, 2013 Julia Fierro rated it it was amazing
The best collection of essays on writing I've read. Thoughtful, compassionate to the diversity of writing styles, processes, intentions.
I especially enjoyed the essay on "epiphanies" and used it in my "Against the Epiphany" MFA thesis argument over a decade ago.
Of course, now that I'm a bit older, I love a perfectly executed, surprising AND inevitable epiphany. Maybe we yearn for them more as life speeds forward?
*See the ending of ZZ Packer's perfect short story, "Brownies," for a subtle but af
Robert Wechsler
Feb 19, 2016 Robert Wechsler rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
In a consciously provocative manner, Baxter takes on some complex fiction-related concepts, such as epiphanies, melodrama, objects in fiction, defamiliarization, and why good fiction isn’t happy. He’s an excellent teacher who knows how to prod readers into thinking differently about the building blocks of literature.
Jul 01, 2008 Steven rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is an excellent collection of essays, for both writers and readers of literary fiction. The essays are written from a teacher's perspective (Baxter was heading the MFA program at the University of Michigan while working on this book), one who notices trends in his students' work and then examines those trends to see how they fit in the literary culture at large. Baxter is an astute observer of this culture, well read in literature, philosophy, and psychology, and able to apply all three to ...more
Sasha Martinez
Sep 30, 2011 Sasha Martinez added it
Shelves: 2010, yes
Some time ago, during one of my adventures in the Intarwebz, I came across a snippet from an essay called “Rhyming Action.” I don’t remember what that snippet was, what it talked about–but I did took note of its origins. Skip to a couple of days ago, where I disbelievingly unearthed this book from a BookSale. [Moar backgrounder: My first encounter with Baxter was with The Feast of Love, a beautiful and complex novel that has everything in it. And then I gave his The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot t ...more
Aug 08, 2007 Margery rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: writers
Shelves: favorites
This is a great book if you don't want "how to's" about writing, but rather want to know what an excellent fiction writer thinks is important about today's writing. There are ways to improve your own writing by reading (and thinking about) this book, but they're more in the realm of philosophical ideas. An example: Baxter thinks that this culture's recent passive approach to responsibility ("mistakes were made" a la Richard Nixon) has influenced its fiction as well. We don't have characters any ...more
Aug 29, 2008 Jane rated it it was amazing
This is a thoughtful, surprising, and quietly exciting set of linked essays on fiction. Though it's by a fiction writer, this is not (thank goodness) another how-to. Baxter observes aspects of fiction -- protagonists, melodrama, places and objects, action -- and revealingly reads examples of them in works by such authors as Jane Smiley, Grace Paley, Chekhov, Sylvia Townsend Warner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wright Morris, Marilynne Robinson, Donald Barthelme, and others. Baxter shows us new ways of l ...more
Laura Kipnis
Aug 13, 2014 Laura Kipnis rated it it was amazing
"In retrospect, I can say with some certainty that most of my own large-scale insights have turned out to be completely false . They have arrived with a powerful, soul-altering force; and they have all been dead wrong." From the wonderful essay "Against Epiphanies" in Burning Down the House. I totally burned through this book--something spoke directly to me on every other page.
Geoff Wyss
Aug 04, 2015 Geoff Wyss rated it it was amazing
I found myself arguing with Baxter through most of the first essay, but it was a fun kind of jousting; after that, the book is pretty consistently brilliant. Baxter seems to have read--and usefully remembered--everything. Illuminating and broad-ranging (and somewhat intimidating), like James Wood, but here from the writer's side of the table.
Мартин Касабов
Харесаха ми 2-3 текста. Останалото беше пълнеж. А и не обичам да взимам съвети за писане от нереализирани/второкласни писатели, които просто гледат да направят професия от цялото нещо.
Dec 18, 2012 Alison rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As fun to read as Bird by Bird is or Stephen King's On Writing, and as much as I love and always return to the wisdom in those two books, Baxter's Burning Down the House is the first writing book I've read that truly stretched my mind (sometimes uncomfortably so) and really forced me to re-evaluate my work. So much of writing is learned by example, but to have what's in the examples broken down very cruelly and clinically was eye-opening, challenging, and life-altering. Not a light read, many of ...more
Mar 31, 2008 Felicity rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: fiction writers
Not a writing craft book in the literal sense, this is a collection of craft talks. Mostly they center on problems in or with contemporary fiction, which is not as dour or negative as it sounds; rather, it presents the challenge and promise of rules and habits engrained in writers and writing culture. It is often funny, beautiful, and/or thought-provoking. It is, in fact, more or less the perfect book for trying to "find the rules, break the rules."

Also, it's painfully quotable. I used around tw
Michael Lieberman
Jun 17, 2014 Michael Lieberman rated it it was amazing
Bottom line: a must for serious fiction writers and readers.
A converted poet, Baxter takes his adopted craft apart. Not intended as a primer for writers, these essays are dauntingly observant and exactingly thoughtful. They won't teach you to be a better writer, but they are certain to make you a better reader. These are occasional pieces — no theme organizes the book — but as an accomplished fiction writer (Feast of Love and Gryphon are his best known books) and teacher, he is brilliant as he w
Oct 10, 2015 Kelly rated it it was amazing
Classic for a reason.
Apr 29, 2009 Glenda rated it it was amazing
"Must read" essays on fiction and character by one of America's foremost masters of narrative. Baxter's approachable style and direct language makes these essays both a pleasure to read and vividly useful to all writers.
Nov 10, 2010 Elizabeth rated it it was amazing
Baxter's "Dysfunctional Narratives" essay changed the way I read, and write. Every essay in here is a gem, as argument and as essay-artifact.
Mike Gibas
Jan 17, 2016 Mike Gibas rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
For anyone who is seriously thinking of becoming a writer, this series of critical musings on the craft of writing is not to be missed. Baxter is witty, irreverent and controversial – but most of all he isn't going to take any shit; and if he thinks that the problem is the reader and their expectations then he is going to say so. The writer doesn't get off easily though – Baxter has high standards and he expects a lot of his authors and his insights are invaluable. You will feel more empowered a ...more
Celeste Ng
May 31, 2007 Celeste Ng rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: fiction writers and fiction readers
Shelves: books-on-writing
The best collections of essays on fiction I've ever read. Insightful, accessible, and yet somehow still elegantly written themselves.
Jan 20, 2016 Jason rated it it was amazing
Highly recommended for students of literature and especially for writers.
B. Mason
Mar 29, 2015 B. Mason rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In "Burning Down the House" Charles Baxter offers some insightful essays, not so much on the craft of writing directly as the quotes on the back of the back would have you believe, but a nuanced look at different aspects in writing from stillness to double voicing to epiphanies. I found Baxter's wit and clear understanding of the written word engaging and thought provoking. If you're looking for a strictly how-to craft of writing book this isn't it but it's well worth reading to deepen your unde ...more
Zachary Fletcher
This essay collection is neither a work of literary criticism nor a fiction writer's craft book, but rather a sort of hybrid that includes elements of both. In that way, it's a unique and occasionally enlightening book that invites writers to examine their work through the eyes of their readers, and readers to consider texts from the POV of the writer. Baxter clearly has ample experience in both reading and writing, and exhibits a keen eye for (sometimes quite subtle) literary trends.

Sean Pagaduan
Sep 03, 2011 Sean Pagaduan rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: creative writing majors, people who want help with their prose
Charles Baxter has assembled a collection of nine essays, not necessarily about the nature of the story, or about the technical elements of the story, but about the elements that give stories heart. Unlike James Wood's How Fiction Works, which seems more concerned with the history of the story, Burning Down the House feels more concerned with the future of the story.

It's worth copy/pasting the table of contents here:
Dysfunctional Narratives, or: "Mistakes Were Made"
On Defamiliarization
Against Ep
Aug 24, 2011 H added it
Shelves: theory-criticism
from "Sonya's Last Speech, or, Double-Voicing"

In the nineteenth century every educated person knew that "sentimental" was the adjectival modifier derived from "sentiment," as in the German poet Friedrich Schiller's famous essay "On the Naive and Sentimental in Literature" (Uber naive und sentimentalische Dichtung, 1795). As the composer John Adams has written, "The 'unconscious' artists are the naive ones. For them art is a natural form of expression, uncompromised by self-analysis or worry over
Rhonda Browning White
Oct 13, 2011 Rhonda Browning White rated it it was amazing
Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction is a collection of nine essays on subjects that concern issues each professional fiction writer must—or should—consider in the creation of their work. The essays are varied and, for me at least, bear further study. This is a book I will turn to repeatedly, and one from which I believe I will gain added insight with each reading. Even with this first reading, I gleaned useful information and applicable instruction—not in the form of a how-to manual, but i ...more
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Charles Baxter was born in Minneapolis and graduated from Macalester College, in Saint Paul. After completing graduate work in English at the State University of New York at Buffalo, he taught for several years at Wayne State University in Detroit. In 1989, he moved to the Department of English at the University of Michigan--Ann Arbor and its MFA program. He now teaches at the University of Minnes ...more
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“When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story.” 257 likes
“There is such a thing as the poetry of a mistake, and when you say, "Mistakes were made," you deprive an action of its poetry, and you sound like a weasel.” 25 likes
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