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Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction

4.13  ·  Rating details ·  1,243 ratings  ·  118 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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4.13  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,243 ratings  ·  118 reviews

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Mike Puma
Sep 13, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2010, lit-crit
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 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 06, 2015 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
Sep 28, 2009 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
Feb 11, 2012 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
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
Mar 21, 2011 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
Jan 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book is what my 87-year old mother would call "real interesting." It is also a book she would never in her life read, because in addition to being interesting, it is also "real hard work."

While I disagree with author Baxter on several points, particularly the literary use of the epiphany and pathetic fallacy, I learned so much from this book, and re-thought so many ideas that I assumed I'd never give another passing moment to, that I have to say I'm glad I read it.

I'm also exhausted. The f
Janet Lynch
Feb 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
I admit in all my thirty or so years of fiction writing, I have never made it through a book about how to write fiction. I would read only a few pages, and then my eyes would glaze over and then I would decide to do what I have always done: try to write fiction by reading and writing it. For that reason, I decided to plough through this collection of essays to the end. Baxter is easy to put down because he’s so dense. It took me months to get through this book, years if I count back to when I bo ...more
Julia Fierro
Nov 19, 2013 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
Jan 25, 2016 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.
Celeste Ng
May 09, 2007 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.
Matt Gomez
Aug 01, 2017 rated it liked it
"Burning Down the House" had some amazing moments of insight into the world of modern fiction writing. I'd give it a higher rating, but some of the essays dragged and felt like complications of relatively straight-forward issues. In some essays, Baxter's premises seem to drift a little too much. However, in the essays where he hits his mark, readers can expect to glean some incredible insights that will benefit their writing.
Sasha Martinez
Sep 30, 2011 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
Charles Finch
Jul 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I loved this. So insightful about writing fiction. I might re-read it immediately.
Jul 11, 2008 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
Mar 25, 2008 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
Aug 07, 2007 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
Jan 16, 2008 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
Oct 28, 2012 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
Laura Kipnis
Aug 13, 2014 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.
Chance Lee
Jan 29, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: college-reading
As far as books on writing though, this is a good one, because it's more about what fiction is about, not on trying to create it. Moving beyond the hows and into the whys is a way to start thinking about why you're trying to write something. What's the message you are conveying versus the message people get from what you write?
Geoff Wyss
Jul 27, 2015 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.
Apr 29, 2009 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.
Sep 17, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Classic for a reason.
Oct 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Highly recommended for students of literature and especially for writers.
Elizabeth Kadetsky
Nov 10, 2010 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.
Nov 27, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Some of these essays were fun or thought-provoking or useful. Others made me alternately want to fall asleep or just roll my eyes.
Jul 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I picked up this book because on July 1 I started participating in a six-month-long online writing workshop, and this month the directive is, simply, to read—and write, of course. I thought, "Okay, I'll read about writing." I scanned my shelves, and this book jumped out at me. I have enjoyed Charles Baxter's fiction, and his short book The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story (which I might just have to reread), so I figured this book of eleven essays on various aspects of the craft of fictio ...more
Jan 02, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
A fascinating collection of essays on the art of fiction, which are fascinating primarily because of Charles Baxter's creative choices of topics: the contemporary lack of character accountability, thanks to Nixon ("Dysfunctional Narratives"); the process of making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar ("On Defamiliarization"); the unbelievability of insight in fiction ("Against Epiphanies"); Ruskin's pathetic fallacy ("Talking Forks"); the uses of comparing and contrasting characters (" ...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
“When all the details fit in perfectly, something is probably wrong with the story.” 273 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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