The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter

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Charles Baxter is an extraordinary writer. Let me just say that up front. The only time I would ever use a word like luminous is when I’m talking about Baxter’s books. In short, I’m a fan. And one of the things I like about his writing is the way he handles subtext–those moments in fiction where the implied is as powerful as the shown.

In THE ART OF SUBTEXT, Baxter gives an embarrassment of examples of subtext well done, proof that he is a careful and thorough reader. However, if you’re looking for practical advice about handling subtext in your own stories, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Baxter discusses how writers set a scene–where objects and people are in relation to others. For example, a man towering over a woman implies one thing, crouching at her feet implies another. He also discusses a character’s wants versus his true needs, the tone people use when speaking to (or ignoring) each other, and how the description of faces affects our perception of characters. There were a few good ideas sprinkled here and there, but most of them were rather obvious and most were handled better in other how-to books.

Different books are meant for different purposes, and perhaps THE ART OF SUBTEXT was never meant to be more than a piece of literary analysis. (With a fair amount of “get off my lawn” sniping at the modern world for good measure.) I don’t want to criticize a fish for not knowing how to climb a tree, but I couldn’t help but be disappointed in this book. Baxter is, after all, a college professor, so I expected a bit of actual instruction along with all the theory.

While THE ART OF SUBTEXT is a good warm-up to get you thinking about the idea of subtext in your fiction, it’s truly more about reading well than writing well, and therefore does not offer much to the fiction writer.

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Rating: 2 stars

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Pie slices: 8 slices craft

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I recommend The Secret Life of Pronouns by James W. Pennebaker or Emotional Structure by Peter Dunne instead of this book.

4 thoughts on “The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter

  1. Interesting. Subtext is, IMO, more important than text. At least it deserves equal weight when writing.

  2. I agree with Julia’s comment: subtext often tells more of the story than the text, at least in skillfully executed fiction. It is too bad Baxter doesn’t give a better primer of “how to.” Examples are nice, but it helps to have someone walk you through the way contrasting mood and tone, for instance, can build subtext into the story. That’s a skill that takes practice, and exercises along that line can be fruitful.

    Thanks for another thoughtful review, Alex!

    -aniko

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