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The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot

The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot

by Charles Baxter


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Charles Baxter inaugurates The Art of, a new series on the craft of writing, with the wit and intelligence he brought to his celebrated book Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction.

Fiction writer and essayist Charles Baxter's The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot discusses and illustrates the hidden subtextual overtones and undertones in fictional works haunted by the unspoken, the suppressed, and the secreted. Using an array of examples from Melville and Dostoyevsky to contemporary writers Paula Fox, Edward P. Jones, and Lorrie Moore, Baxter explains how fiction writers create those visible and invisible details, how what is displayed evokes what is not displayed.

The Art of Subtext is part of The Art of series, a new line of books by important authors on the craft of writing, edited by Charles Baxter. Each book examines a singular, but often assumed or neglected, issue facing the contemporary writer of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. The Art of series means to restore the art of criticism while illuminating the art of writing.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555974732
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 07/24/2007
Series: Art of...
Pages: 120
Sales rank: 309,597
Product dimensions: 5.05(w) x 7.07(h) x 0.53(d)

About the Author

CHARLES BAXTER is the author of ten books, including The Feast of Love, a finalist for the National Book Award, and Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. He teaches at the University of Minnesota and lives in Minneapolis.


Minneapolis, Minnesota

Date of Birth:

May 13, 1947

Place of Birth:

Minneapolis, Minnesota


B. A., Macalester College, 1969; Ph.D., State University of New York at Buffalo, 1974

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The Art of Subtext

Beyond Plot

By Charles Baxter

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2007 Charles Baxter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-473-2


The Art of Staging

Books sometimes fall into your hands in the oddest ways. Meeting up with a particular work of literature may have an eeriness of occasion that resembles an accident that is not really accidental. Bernardo Atxaga's novel Obabakoak, for instance, was recommended to me late one night in a Barcelona restaurant after much conversation and a great deal of wine. I wrote down this curious title on a sodden piece of paper and put it into my wallet. For the next month, every time I tried to get out some dollar bills or a picture ID, my note with the stuttering cryptic word "Obabakoak" printed on it would drop out and fall to the floor. Time and again, I would pick it up and put it back into my wallet. Time and again, the piece of paper, still smelling of wine, would reappear. After some hunting on the web — the book is out of print in the United States — I finally obtained a copy, and soon after I did, the piece of paper obligingly disappeared from my wallet.

Obabakoak is a wonderfully peculiar novel. Written originally in the Basque language and published in 1988, then translated into Spanish by the author and subsequently translated from its Spanish version into English by Margaret Jull Costa and published in this country by Pantheon in 1992, it was yanked out of print a few years later. Such was the obstacle course in the American literary marketplace for a book whose specialty is a kind of intimate, wry muttering. (One of its chapter headings is titled, "How to Plagiarize.") Early on in Obabakoak — the title refers to the goings-on in the Basque village of Obaba — we are introduced to a character named Esteban Werfell. At the same time and in the same paragraph we are also introduced to the library where he writes. Esteban is a literary type, and he is surrounded on all four walls by about twelve thousand leather-bound volumes, some of them his own purchases and some of them his father's.

In this room, among all these books, there is one window.

... a window through which, while he wrote, Esteban Werfell could see the sky, the willows, the lake and the little house built there for the swans in the city's main park. Without really impinging on his solitude, the window made an inroad into the darkness of the books and mitigated that other darkness which often creates phantoms in the hearts of men who have never quite learned how to live alone.

Esteban's inner life is singularly like the room in which he sits. The parallelism is exact. The scene includes two complementary darknesses, the first a non-metaphorical darkness and the second being "that other darkness," the shadowy psychic world of Esteban Werfell's self-imposed imaginative conditioning that he shares with other men "who have never quite learned how to live alone." This community defined by solitude invites a party of phantasms and should be familiar to most writers and readers as the locale of emotional and cognitive associations. The literal window makes an "inroad" on the literal darkness, and its view of willows and lake and swan house eases Esteban's soul without touching his isolation. The willows and the sky and the swan house constitute the prisoner's portion, his meager diet of the real. (A recent Nobel Prize–winner in literature, Orhan Pamuk, claimed in his Nobel speech that such rooms are shared by all writers, everywhere.)

Esteban's room serves as that classic enclosure, the haunt of the imagination. This site can be a mental or a physical place or both at once. Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Lady of Shalott lived there until she grew "half sick of shadows," broke her mirror and became, in effect, a Victorian zombie sleepwalking her way to her watery death. Honoré de Balzac apocryphally chained to his desk, Marcel Proust in his cork-lined room, Lord Chandos in his castle, Jorge Luis Borges in his library, Emily Dickinson behind her closed shutters, Plato's inhabitants of the cave — all of them inhabit prisons where the imagination is doomed to flourish.

As an allegory of the world of appearances, Plato's cave is also an enclosure of sorts where the receptive imagination is called upon to make some narrative sense of the shadows on the wall. Plato's cave is a libelous accusation against art itself. Plato generally mistrusted art as the evil twin of philosophy and goes to great lengths to say so in Book Three of The Republic, but through a kind of indeliberate dramatic irony, art arises in Plato's cave as comfort and compensation. The world of appearances has a trap door that takes you into a counter world of meaningful dreams. Plato's cave — I knew of a film society with this name, and, more recently, a tattoo parlor — was one of the first undergrounds devoted to visions. Not entirely by accident, it resembles a theater.

An image of the writerly mind walled up among books with one window looking fixedly outward: this is where Atxaga's novel begins, and it is the model for the apparent division of the literal and the associational, the textual and the subtextual. We are presented with a man and the staging area of his life, along with the imprisoning rewards of his bookish work. Outside and inside, object and metaphor, are somehow reciprocal. The picture of the object — what I'd call the pictorialism — leads by a circuitous route to the inner life. In this passage the separation between the soul of the world and the body in which that soul is housed has melted away.

This is like saying that the paintings that seem most like dreams — those by Giorgio de Chirico or René Magritte or Max Ernst, for example — also have a strange and seemingly unnecessary accumulation of detail, a chronic fixation in which it is dangerous to move in any direction. Something has been frozen in place.

Esteban's library and this novel, Obabakoak, constitute both the blockade and the window, the dungeon and the escape route. The room, after all, is not yet sealed up. Light streams in through the glass like the light from a projectionist's booth. We can't see the swans, but thanks to the reference to their shelter, they're there by implication, as is much else in this novel.

These passages invite the reader into a kind of productive daydreaming, but for an American reader the language has arrived by two removes and is therefore only an approximation of what the writer intended.

Nevertheless, what struck me immediately about this passage was its dramatic staging. I knew where I was and where the main character was sitting. I also knew his situation and something about his emotional life. With nervous gratified shock I recognized the room and the metaphor it created, and I had a needling suspicion that Esteban Werfell's story would have something to do with mistaking shadows for real things — as, in fact, it does, with a fallen idealist as its main character. In the careful evocation of a subtext, a writer would, hypothetically, learn, step by step, how to create an interior space, using details of location and objects that mirror a psychological condition.

Reading the passage from Atxaga for the first time, I myself sat in a windowless basement room. The novel may have been written originally in Basque, but I know Esteban's scene well enough. I am writing these words now in a similar room. The walls are lined (is "insulated" the right word?) with books. The room's only source of natural light is a section of the ceiling where three square pieces of "ballroom glass" — glass in the upstairs floor — permit the sun's light to penetrate for a few hours a day from the upstairs window, but only in mid summer. This is my palace, my prison cell, my library, my empire, my haunt, my own theatrical staging area, this room.

To use the word "staging" in relation to literary fiction sounds like a beginner's mistake. Staging, it seems reasonable to think, applies only to the theatrical stage. When I told a brilliantly intelligent writer friend with a dozen acclaimed novels to her credit that I was writing a meditation on staging, she wrote back to ask, "What is staging?"

So in my next letter I cited Gretta Conroy transfixed on the staircase landing at the end of the evening as she listens to Bartell D'Arcy singing "The Lass of Aughrim," while downstairs in the middle of the front hallway Gabriel Conroy gazes in rapt attention at her. Gabriel watches; Gretta listens; offstage, Bartell D'Arcy can be heard, by implication. No one moves. There is a chain of four acts of attention, if you include the reader's attention to Gabriel, and the attention keeps going up the stairs, ascending. This moment near the end of James Joyce's "The Dead" is intensely dramatic, and yet for all its drama it is quite static.

Staging in fiction involves putting characters in specific strategic positions in the scene so that some unvoiced nuance is revealed. Staging may include how close or how far away the characters are from each other, what their particular gestures and facial expressions might be at moments of dramatic emphasis, exactly how their words are said, and what props appear inside or outside. Excessive detailing is its signpost. Certainly it involves the writer in the stage craft of her characters just as a director would, blocking out the movement of the actors. Staging might be called the micro-detailing implicit in scene-writing when the scene's drama intensifies and takes flight out of the literal into the unspoken. It shows us how the characters are behaving, and it shows us what they cannot say through the manner in which they say what they can say. Staging gives us a glimpse of their inner lives, what is in their hearts, just as Esteban Werfell's study leads us also to his soul. Staging, you might argue, is the poetry of action and setting when it evokes the otherwise unstated.

For years I was puzzled by the phenomena of airport/airplane reading. The spectacle of people reading before and during flights wasn't especially perplexing, but what always baffled me was the narrowness of the selections. Walk down the aisle of almost any airplane and you are likely to see passengers hunched up, bent over, the men reading Tom Clancy novels and the women reading Danielle Steel novels. I am exaggerating here, but not to a criminal degree.

The techno-political thriller and the romance novel are similar in their preoccupation with procedural issues related to material objects. But they aren't "staged" in the way I am using that word because they have virtually no interest in using dramatic means to reveal character and the inner life. Instead, they provide materially overdetermined hypernarratives that aim to reduce the scale of human beings in relation to the things that surround them.

In a Tom Clancy novel, we are presented with details of military hardware, hierarchies of power, both military and civilian, and a loose cannon to set the plot into motion. The loose cannon is always required to destabilize things-as-they-are. In any particular scene the writing locates the characters quickly, but then characterizes the hardware at length. In these novels human beings can be summarized with almost embarrassing ease. They have roles to play, which they perform well or badly. (Conveniently, however, they have no souls.) The hardware, by contrast, is unimaginably complex and requires considerable writerly hubbub. In fact the hardware takes on the sex appeal that the characters typically lack. The only element left in doubt is the outcome of the plot, not the vagaries of human nature. The characteristic resolution to a novel of this type is a return to the status quo, with the addition of a new regulatory agency.

Similarly, in a romance novel the exotic location and the details of material wealth eventually lead the reader to an understanding of who is profitably to be paired off with whom. The imaginative energy devoted to hardware in the techno-political thriller is applied here to clothing, sex appeal, accessories, the sovereignty of riches, location (the more exotic the better), physical attributes, and lifestyle choices. In a romance novel a disturbance to social hierarchies may be settled through marriage or a cunning liaison. Men once thought to be mysterious and dangerous can be understood and tamed through sex, domestic affection, and familial ties. The characteristic resolution to this sort of novel is a marriage and the displacement of a threatening female figure to the distant background, usually a cemetery.

Both kinds of novels are fully explicit about human nature, which, though more complex in the romance novel than in the techno-political thriller, must be revealed by the novel's end. Things are celebrated and given an aura. The aura around a thing is a good sign of commodity culture busily at work. Both genres are absolutely opposed to ongoing mystery and to the unknowable. Everything that needs to be said can and will be said. As a result, these books leave very little to the imagination to reconstruct. And both kinds of novels indulge in material overstatement — a knowingness about objects thought to be valuable, along with a fascination with technique, the exact way to do something properly — making love, mixing a martini, or firing off a torpedo.

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.

Both the techno-political thriller and the romance novel can be understood as replicas of certain features of American culture. Robert Hass once noticed that the separation between objects and the inner life defined a quarrel Robert Bly carried on against modernism decades ago. Bly was all for giving up the representation of material life in pursuit of the soul, in the form of the deep poetic image. A kind of polarization of content was therefore suggested. The fixation on material objects and the distrust of the spirit or the soul produce in genre fiction a no-man's-land where everything has a price tag, but where a character like Esteban Werfell, his library, and Bernardo Atxaga's Obabakoak itself would have no place and no value. The soul, or "the soul," placed under suspicion and quotation marks, becomes a refugee with no known habitation or refuge. In their particular form of material insistence, genre novels depend upon the management of mannequin characterization and reassuringly recognizable types from whom the complexity of humanity and all questions related to the soul have conveniently leaked out.

When objects and actions create a pathway to the spirit, to a character's inner life, you are in the presence of "staging" as I am defining it here — a balancing between the concrete and the unutterable. It is all reciprocal. Staging is compatible with poetry in a way that material overstatement never can be. Staging implies mystery by dramatizing the gestures we make in its direction.

The staged poem

The contemporary reaction against narrative devices in poetry has been so belligerent that associating staging with poetry sounds like a radically rearguard act. Perhaps also a rather stupid one, at that. Nevertheless, some of the genius of great poetry has at times involved the logic of staging the unspoken — Paradise Lost, to name one obvious example. What often makes dramatic poems memorable is the effect of the narrative close-up on chillingly ambiguous action in league with abnormal psychology, as in the work of the contemporary poet B. H. Fairchild. When describing behavior, certain poets of the dramatic lyric have quite happily staged the domestic theater of wounded egos. Robert Frost, to cite one example, was a better domestic psychologist and dramatist than most of the fiction writers of his generation. Savage household quarrels were mother's milk to him.

For example, here are the well-known opening lines of Frost's "Home Burial," a dramatic lyric. Imagine this stanza as a series of stage directions in which the characters' hidden feelings suddenly arise through gesture alone. We are given a plot, and then, very rapidly, we move beyond it by means of hyperdetailing.

He saw her from the bottom of the stairs Before she saw him. She was starting down, Looking back over her shoulder at some fear. She took a doubtful step and then undid it To raise herself and look again. He spoke Advancing toward her: 'What is it you see From up there always — for I want to know.' She turned and sank upon her skirts at that, And her face changed from terrified to dull. He said to gain time: 'What is it you see,' Mounting until she cowered under him. 'I will find out now — you must tell me, dear.' She, in her place, refused him any help With the least stiffening of her neck and silence. She let him look, sure that he wouldn't see, Blind creature; and awhile he didn't see. But at last he murmured, 'Oh,' and again, 'Oh.'


Excerpted from The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter. Copyright © 2007 Charles Baxter. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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Table of Contents


The Art of Staging,
Digging the Subterranean,
Unheard Melodies,
Inflection and the Breath of Life,
Creating a Scene,
Loss of Face,

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