Oct 05, 07
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 is "Essays on Fiction," after all) but I can't imagine a writer who wouldn't be well served to examine the numerous moments of brilliance that exist throughout this collection of Charles Baxter's essays.
His tone throughout is strangely conversational and academic at the same time, citing a litany of literature of which only a well-read studier of fiction will be 100% familiar with. Donald Barthelme gets a whole section. Certain advice for writers (paraphrased, "the way a person describes furniture says more about the person than the furniture") is peppered throughout, but this is really a study of (mostly) Western fiction and what we, as storytellers and even as a society, are doing wrong. It's hard to argue with him. His points are made logically but eloquently, and although he never says, "You must do it this way," you get the idea he's directing this at someone who is trying to write stories.
The book is divided into sections, which help to keep the ideas manageable. While each essay is technically a single point or "lesson," so many of these pages carry numerous insights that there's enough to chew on.
The only part of the book that gives me pause is the section where he describes the personality differences between fiction writers and poets. The poet is the one at the center of the party, the manic-depressive one, drinking himself to tears, and hiding them with the lampshade on his head. The sullen wallflower, the fiction writer, stays on the periphery and works to remember all the details. He's quiet, reserved, and bright. He admires the poet. And on and on - you see where I'm going with this. I think we've seen enough of how "writers" look and act, how they compare to how the "poets" act, and where their personalities are different. The distinction is dubious. If hopeful writers-to-be are going to be picking up this book (inevitably they are), the section will only serve to offer them a blueprint of a "writerly personality" of which they can fashion themselves as. There is no "typical fiction writer" any more than there is a typical electrical engineer or Buddhist or astronaut. I was surprised to see this dumbing-down of the "artistic personality" in a book that is so much smarter than that.
With that said, the book shines much more than it fails. For a writer, the essays help to point out some pitfalls that can be avoided by the now-smarter fictioneer. For a reader, the essays provide a great way to look at the way narrative functions in our society, and the way that everything in the outside world (even Nixon's double-speak and passive voice make the cut) inform the way we write, read, and interpret literature. The best lesson I learned - characters don't need to be good or bad, only interesting.