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The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (Art of...)

3.99 of 5 stars 3.99  ·  rating details  ·  497 ratings  ·  86 reviews
The Art Of series is a new series of brief books by contemporary writers on important craft issues. Each book investigates an element of the craft of fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry by discussing works by authors past and present. The books in the Art Of series are not strictly manuals, but serve readers and writers by illuminating aspects of the craft of writing
Paperback, 179 pages
Published 2007 by Graywolf Press
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(showing 1-30 of 1,105)
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Kathy Davie
Nonfiction for the writer and intended to help develop a deeper, more interesting plot.

My Take
This was too subtle for me. I picked up a few useful bits here and there, but for the most part, I was just confused.

The first chapter was good, and I got all excited with the promise of what I thought was ahead.

"...create an interior space, using details of location and objects that mirror a psychological condition."

I love this idea and had never consciously considered it even as I subconsciously appr
A great book for both reading and writing in the realist tradition. A stifling and tangential book (on some topics) for all others. Baxter's interests here should help portraitists ("realists") to understand their art much, much better, by focusing on some basic but subtle (and typically infuriating) problems of portraying emotion without melodrama, and of "bringing characters to life."

"Young writers tend to hate the whole idea of plot." This sentence bothered me, as a young writer who hates th
This book is definitely longer than 120 pages...

I found this book easy to read, but sometimes difficult to understand. The point that Baxter makes in the beginning is that it is difficult to explain subtext. Sometimes I think he spent a lot of time showing examples, but not enough time explaining the subtext behind them and how he deconstructed the way the subtext was revealed. Usually I am fine with just examples, but I found it hard to follow some of his thoughts from time to time.

Overall, I t
I read this book in two sittings, and found it absorbing and thoughtful. I had hoped it would make me gasp with recognition a little more, that it would give me some new ways of thinking about fiction, but instead it articulated nicely my own thoughts on fiction writing. I'm teaching excerpts to my next class of short story writing students, and I look forward to re-reading, discussing and expanding on Baxter's ideas with the group.

Onto Joan Silber's book in this "Art of" series. Can't wait!
Glenn Mitchell
Self-Consciously Literate

This book is the opposite of Linda Seger's book on subtext. Where Seger's book is practical in focus and useful writers who want to enhance their skill at weaving subtext into their stories, Baxter's book is theoretical and more an exercise in analyzing subtext in literary fiction.

Writers who are looking for practical advice they can use to elevate their stories will almost certainly be disappointed. This is a book aimed almost exclusively at reading well well and not on
Though there are passages where this slim, college-lecture-style volume turns facile or tiresome, novelist Baxter's analysis of "the implied, the half-visible, and the unspoken" in literature is saved from irrelevance by a keen sense of pacing and a healthy dose of self-awareness (after confidently zooming through seminal works by Herman Melville, John Cheever, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Baxter confesses, "I feel that ... I am on the verge of what Walt Whitman calls 'a usual mistake.' I don't wish ...more
Baxter draws on more than 40 literary works to explain the art of subtext. Never veering into the self-help flavored category of books on writing, he dissects effective stories and shows us how they work.

Baxter writes with a compelling religious fervor. He says the writer must believe her story; she can't be "agnostic about it" (96). He talks about character development in terms of the soul.

My favorite chapter is "Creating A Scene." Characters need to makes scenes. They can't be well behaved all
May 05, 2012 London rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Writers, literary readers, English majors, Would-be English majors
Shelves: writing, non-fiction
This is a book full of passion for art and language. As someone who hasn't formally studied literature, The Art of Subtext gave me a wonderful new way to think about my reading and writing.

While as far from a how-to guide or writing manual as possible and still be a book on writing, I suspect that this book will impact my writing more than most of the writing manuals I've read. Baxter's prose is engaging and his opinions are unflinching (if occasionally stodgy or nostalgic). I find it difficult
Oct 11, 2008 Julene rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: all writers; and everyone!
Recommended to Julene by: AWP
Shelves: about-writing
I love this book, especially the chapter Unheard Melodies. He gives a breakdown of how we've lost the skills to pay attention to one another in a way that I identified with, regretfully. He points out how contemporary fiction writers like Lorrie Moore use this in their writing. How popular shows like Steinfield and Sex in the City are comprised of parallel dialogues rather than cross communication. Maybe I'm alone in having not noticed this. But he is blatant in his assessment and I am grateful. ...more
Meghan Krogh
Baxter’s writing guide on how to tell the story under the story tackles everything from facial expression to tone to creating a big scene in order to tell something quieter and truer underneath. I’ve read a lot of writing guides, but this is one of the better ones.

Initial Thoughts
I was impressed by the proliferation of examples he gave, and how brilliantly they illustrated each of his points. I also found myself at times distracted - in a good way - by his excellent analyses of various w
I was initially going to give this 2 stars, because while the ideas in this book are quite sound the presentation comes across as overly formal and thus oversimplfied, which is my reaction sometimes to the Baxter books I liked less, but the next to last chapter, "Creating a Scene," bumped this book up a star all by itself. If you get a hold of this book, THIS chapter is really the one to study. Overall, a lot of Baxter's closely studied examples are less than convincing if I hadn't already read ...more
I resist reading other reviews before I write my own, mostly because when they say something I'm in agreement with, I feel obliged to say it differently, and I thus end up being unclear. But after finishing Baxter's The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, I found myself a little underwhelmed and lacked the words to describe just why. But I came across another review that said basically what I was looking to say, only more eloquently than I am capable: Baxter's suggestions on how to write subtext are, w ...more
This is one book in a series about the art of writing (some of the others include commentary on poetry). Charles Baxter's book is a collection of essays all dealing with the same subject. Although I understood the point of each essay, it would be difficult to summarize them as a whole, hence I'll provide a brief summary of each.
The Art of Staging is more than simply about setting but how setting and positioning of characters leads to the what is going on underneath the action. Although there may
Dec 02, 2008 Jim rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Writers
Recommended to Jim by: The Elegant Variation
Some unusual circumstances surrounding my reading this book. After a few false starts I started reading in the middle and was hooked right away and then looped around to the beginning again. Since the chapters are freestanding essays are various aspects of subplot, this worked fine. But it made me look at the introduction a bit suspiciously as I think it overpromises (as do many books about writing).

Also, I happened to read this book while reading Chris Baty's No Plot, No Problem which I kept wi
Baxter's slender, ruminative book explores how writers can use staging and "micro-detailing" to shed light on the inner-lives of characters and create scenes that will resonate in a reader's imagination.

"What if wishes and fantasies turn out in some cases to be more powerful than their real life satisfactions?" Such questions, illuminated by cogent examples, will make any writer think about their own stories.

The Art of Subtext includes an extended, poignant scene from Minnesotan J.F. Powers and
An MFA degree in a book! Although I wonder how much of this I would have been able to absorb and understand as a beginning writer without the last two years spent learning it. It sometimes takes Baxter a while to get to his point, and I find reading books about books I haven't read super frustrating, so it might not have been as helpful without the primer of a graduate degree in this stuff.
Michael Murphy
Subtext is a hard topic to deal with, and Baxter does a decent job of it. However, although there are some good insights, Baxter comes off as overly pretentious and at times his examples are incredibly discursive. The goal of a book like this should be to make a difficult topic assume greater clarity, rather than ramp up the obfuscation. On a related note, WTH is it with people on books about writing dissecting the crap out of the most esoteric examples they can find? These can still be useful, ...more
A tricky job, talking about what isn't there. My favorite section was on characters being unable to hear what is being said. Obviously, I mean, by definition, there is a lot of irony in all of the contrast between what is said and what is really going on and I think badly done irony is one of those things that brings on crises of toxic self-consciousness for me so I was unable to hear good chunks of what I read on the first reading because I kept looking for counterexamples. Fortunately reading ...more
These essays explore how a writer creates connections between characters’ outward movements and inner lives, by paying close attention to gestures and speech, objects and actions. Baxter demonstrates how to show the differences between characters’ stated desires and their true feelings. He points out how what is unheard and unspoken in a scene can be more revealing than what is actually expressed. He also examines at length the “problem of the face” in a culture of mass reproduction, arguing tha ...more
Another book I will refer to often for my own writing. Kamenetz skillfully shows writers how to enhance a story with subtext - the words that aren't written.
Christina Castro
Mind=blown! I recommend this to every writer, and it was recommended to me by a writer in a coffee shop with the same sort of spiel: you MUST read this book.
Nov 09, 2012 Pamela rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: writers
[update November 2012: On a second read, I found more here--more ways to think about the unsaid or implied, more illumination. Maybe I just needed two times to really take it in. I'm adding another star!]

I enjoyed this but came away feeling it was a bit slight. I would have liked more close-reading examples; the ones Baxter does provide are revealing. I also finished still unsure exactly what he means by "subtext"--my obtuseness, or his own failure to be precise? As far as I could tell, he meant
I must admit that I thought I was going to dislike this book, given my reaction to the first chapter which I found rather lit fictiony.The author makes some wildly sweeping statements about genre fiction that I disagreed with, particularly since he wasn't able to actually point to specific examples. But once I got through swimming in the waters of "literary fiction good, genre fiction silly," I found it to be a useful analysis of writing in layers of characterization, mode and plot development. ...more
This book was a little like literary criticism light. In fact, the majority of the examples cited by the author—works by Hemingway, O'Connor, Fitzgerald–are the same ones you read in intro to literary criticism class. However, the tone of Baxter's book isn't quite as academic, so it's an easy read and a sort of nice refresher course on subtext. And subtext is so sorely lacking these days in many of the books coming out that it was nice to read about it again. The unseen, unheard, and unspoken ca ...more
Reading a literary essay by Charles Baxter is like having a conversation with a friend - so soothed by his voice.
I hesitate to say that Baxter's book is fun to read, because I don't want "fun" to undermine the seriousness or skill with which Baxter approaches his topic. But fun applies here - if you like good writing. Using irony, understatement, forthrightness, and drawing from works of literature, drama, and philosophy and from his own life, this brief book demonstrates how subtext works (and sometimes how it goes awry).

This is well worth reading for anyone who wants to write, or for people who want to u
Tim Lepczyk
Charles Baxter has smart things to say regarding the craft of writing, that's a given. I read Burning Down the House while in grad school and since then have always kept an eye out for works by Charles Baxter. At times this book moves slowly and I tended to skim through parts; however, overall it was worth reading. The chapters which I gained the most from were The Art of Staging, Digging the Subterranean, and Unheard Melodies. The other chapters were okay, but I didn't them as useful.
This book does what it says it does: "examines a singular, but often assumed or neglected, issue facing contemporary writers of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry." With plenty of examples from classic and contemporary fiction, Baxter illuminates some of the mechanics of subtext and how they have evolved over the centuries. I was also able to take away a lot of lessons for writing theater, probably because one chapter is called "The Art of Staging" and another, "Creating a Scene".

I'd recommend this
I read this one eagerly because Baxter's Burning Down the House is one of my favorite books on the craft of fiction. Have to say, though, that after the first read I was disappointed. Perhaps it was just the high expectations, but it may also be that this book is more a "why you should" as opposed to a "how you create." I'm already sold on the value of subtext so I was hoping for more discussion of how to do it; you know, more "the art of." On subsequent reads, however, I'm finding more of Baxte ...more
Jun 30, 2008 heather rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: writers, critics
Recommended to heather by: powell's
An excellent blend of cultural criticism, memoir and literary criticism that is an excellent handbook for writers. I prefr its new journalism-y conversationalism as opposed to the didactic, sterile, technical tone one finds in books about writing. Though Baxter clearly aims the book at writers of character-driven fiction, his insights could also be appreciated by memoirists, playwrights and poets. It is also very appealing as a book of insightful, evocative literary criticism. I'll definitely be ...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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“The techno-political thriller and the romance novel serve as antidotes to the imagination rather than stimulants to it. For this reason they make for ideal reading in airports and airplanes. They effectively shut down the imagination by doing all its work for it. They leave the spirit or the soul—and ambiguity, for that matter—out of the equation. By shutting down the imagination, genre novels perform a useful service to the anxious air traveler by reducing his or her ability to speculate. For the most part, people on airplanes, and here I include myself, would rather not use their speculative imaginations at all; one consequence of this situation is that great poetry is virtually unreadable during turbulence, when the snack cart has been put away and the seat belts fastened. Enough anxiety is associated with air travel without Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus making it worse.” 2 likes
“An unthinkable thought is not one that hasn't occurred to somebody, nor is it a thought that somebody considers to be wrong. An unthinkable thought threatens a person's entire existence and is therefore subversive and consequently can be thought of and has been thought of, but has been pushed out of the mind's currency and subsumed into its margins where it festers. Dark nights of the soul are lit by inconceivable ideas. Any story may draw its source from the power of an unthinkable thought.” 1 likes
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