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Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction

4.12 of 5 stars 4.12  ·  rating details  ·  755 ratings  ·  79 reviews
Graywolf reissues one of its most successful essay collections with two new essays and a new foreword by Charles Baxter

As much a rumination on the state of literature as a technical manual for aspiring writers, Burning Down the House has been enjoyed by readers and taught in classrooms for more than a decade. Readers are rewarded with thoughtful analysis, humorous one-line...more
Paperback, 288 pages
Published September 2nd 2008 by Graywolf Press (first published 1997)
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(showing 1-30 of 1,590)
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Mike Puma
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
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
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
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...more
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...more
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
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
Aug 08, 2007 Margery rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
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
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
"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.
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
Julia Fierro
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...more
Mar 31, 2008 Felicity rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
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...more
Michael Lieberman
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...more
"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.
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.
Celeste Ng
May 31, 2007 Celeste Ng rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
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.
Sean Pagaduan
Sep 03, 2011 Sean Pagaduan rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
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...more
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...more
Rhonda Browning White
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
The farther I got in this book, the more a small part of me wanted to hate it. Baxter suffers from the same pretentiousness and academic tone that plagues other so-called masterworks of writing craft, such as Gardner's THE ART OF FICTION. Some of the same problems you might find in other academic works are here: A predilection for using esoteric phrases and words, a heightening of the conversation to something that will only be understood by those willing to, at times, read a sentence again; and...more
Sasha Martinez
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
The best essays in this collection present the idea of a thinking writer talking about writing--not just a critic's point of view, not just a teacher's point of view. The shortcomings of the critical perspective are, I think, obvious, but the pedagogical standpoint can also be limiting in that it can too easily fall into workshop mentality, where everything is immediately accesible and clear, and good fiction does not work to please immediately but resonate much further into a person's existence...more
Already, I can picture a tattered copy of this book sitting on my shelf, marked with hundreds of pencil marks and sticky notes, years down the line. I can't imagine this book not being useful for a writer, nor can I imagine ever having learned all of its lessons. Burning Down the House (yes, that's the Talking Heads he's referencing) is full of astute advice, not only on writing, but on our whole interaction with culture, society, and storytelling. It's not a writing guide per say (the subtitle...more
Jordan Ferguson
There are few writers I respect more than Charles Baxter [as a glance at the last line of my Bio page will illustrate]. He is a fantastic short story writer, but his essays might be even better. This collection is the book that broke me head open to what fiction could really do far more than my university studies. In pieces both illuminating and confrontational, Baxter opens up the face of fiction, and shows you the gears turning inside, when done right. I’ve carried his pieces on narrative ‘ech...more
Sep 28, 2014 Vani marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Mentioned on Selected Shorts: 2013-10-18 - So You Want to Change the World
Wonderful, insightful & helpful essays in the form of letters (in the style of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet). Warm tone, easy to read and remember. A lovely reading experience. I've read this collection several times. Each time it feels fresh even though familiar and leaves me wishing I could meet the author in person. It certainly sends me running back to his books.

And then what a delight to see how he embodies his advice in his wonderful short stories!
Baxter writes interesting essays which give me much to think about, although I find that I disagree with many of his starting assumptions and some of his conclusions. He has given me a few new tools with which to consider literature, however, and I enjoyed discovering what he had to say despite my disagreements. I particularly liked his first essay, on dysfunctional narratives, and one towards the end of the book about stillness in literature, how it is written and used and the possibilities it...more
An intelligent, thoughtful and often entertaining book - I especially loved the chapter that distinguishes between poets and fiction writers! (Baxter is both) - and I loved the way fiction for him meant storytelling meant essential human practice and need. Although he referred to many novels and stories, I didn't get the feeling I was reading a teacher's transmitting-the-literary-canon notes, but the thinking of someone who sees the ethical and emotional dimensions of what storytelling is and ca...more
David Clark
Provocative essays directed toward those interested in writing narratives. I found his insights more than helpful. This is not a "how to do it" kind of book. Rather, more like sitting down with an expert over coffee or scotch and having a discussion about the stuff in both your stories that actually worked, or didn't. Is it opinionated? Absolutely. But in the best sense of an essay, Baxter has shaped those opinions with thoughtful argument, anchored them in examples, and encrusted the entire boo...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
More about Charles Baxter...
The Feast of Love The Soul Thief Saul and Patsy Gryphon: New and Selected Stories The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot

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“When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story.” 214 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.” 22 likes
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