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Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction Paperback – September 2, 2008

ISBN-13: 978-1555975081 ISBN-10: 1555975089 Edition: New edition

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press; New edition edition (September 2, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1555975089
  • ISBN-13: 978-1555975081
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 7.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #22,461 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

For fiction lovers, history and social commentary on the genre is a thought-provoking addition to reading. Novelist Charles Baxter's essays on contemporary fiction dissect the connections between life, values, and art with unerring and insightful precision. Baxter compares the dysfunction in contemporary fiction to the removal of the villain from politics. He decries the prostituting of epiphany as a commercial product that turns fiction into a pseudo-instruction manual, and he reveals the magic within Donald Barthelme's innovative prose, created with a generosity "almost unseen" in American letters. This is a powerful companion to Baxter's short story collections. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Baxter, a novelist (Shadow Play, LJ 12/92), short story author, self-described ex-poet, and instructor of writing, has revised lectures he originally gave for a MFA program, addressing storytelling concerns dear to his heart. Baxter uses a quote from Richard Nixon as the point of departure in his first essays to explore how "deniability" has crept even into contemporary writing, robbing it of its interest and complexity. Baxter makes a strong case for reviving narratives with "mindful villainy" and an "imaginative grip on the despicable." Elsewhere, Baxter delves into the short fiction of Alice Walker, Flannery O'Connor, and James Joyce to trace shadows of the antagonist and defends the "guilty pleasures" of this "unserious" mode now fallen out of fashion. While Baxter can sometimes sound like a rule-wagging schoolmaster, there is a freshness to his roundabout method of deflating cliches taught at writing programs; his work will appeal to serious writers and readers of fiction.?Amy Boaz, "Library Journal"
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

This book opens a door into my brain to show me why.
Lexophelia
He further shows how melodrama underpins some of the great fiction - using Chekov, that most unmelodramatic writer, as an example.
Doug Vaughn
I learned from it and recommend it for anyone serious about serious writing.
Hiram Davis

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

49 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Doug Vaughn HALL OF FAME on May 26, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction by Charles Baxter is a refreshingly broad take on a number of issues facing writers and readers of serious fiction today. The title reminds me of a story Harry Crews once told concerning his early days learning the craft of fiction. He had given an early story to his teacher, Alan Tate, and when he asked what Tate thought of it he got the reply that "Fire is a great purifier" - so went home, burned his story and started over. Baxter seems to want to burn away a lot of what has come to dominate the literary scene. He bemoans the lack of real antagonists and villians in what he refers to as "dysfunctional" fiction. He decries the passive voice and ambiguos tone that writing in which no one is really accountable (which he blames largely on the polictical rhetoric of Nixon, Reagan,and Busch which he says has robbed the public of the proper 'story' of the last few decades).
This book of essays is enjoyable on a number of levels. One of my favorite chapters is the one in which he contrasts fiction writers with poets. This chapter is full of broad and exaggerated generalizations (which he has foretold and apologized for in advance) which are both thought provoking and often very funny. The chapter on melodrama is also very insightful and harking back to an earlier essay about dysfunctional fiction in which the characters are all victims and no one is a clear protagonist or antagonist, he shows how pure evil (a clear cut villian) is the essential ingrediant in melodrama and that is why melodrama continues to interest readers while lots of serious fiction doesn't register. He further shows how melodrama underpins some of the great fiction - using Chekov, that most unmelodramatic writer, as an example.
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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 6, 1997
Format: Hardcover
I have had the amazing fortune to study with Mr. Baxter as his student at the University of Michigan where he is director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing. I have taken classes taught by this man, I consider him a friend. In my humble opinion he is the finest instructor of the craft of writing that I have ever known.
On top of that, his fiction is some of the most thoughtful, controlled and refined work that is being produced in the English language, period. Knowing that I would think that anyone with an even remote interest in writing would like to pick his brain. I have had that opportunity (to a limited extent) here at the University. But now, with this wonderful book, beautifully written, anyone can venture into the mind of this master of the craft. It's like having an entire semster of Charlie's best sayings, ideas and thoughts on writing in a nicely bound and clearly written little package.
The fact of the matter is that this book goes on a writer's shelf between White's ELEMENTS OF STYLE and Gardener's ART OF FICTION. Like those two masterful volumes this new work is essential to what Charlie fondly calls "A writer's bag o' tricks." The essay RHYMING ACTION, by itself, would be worth the price of the book. In short, the work has become an essential text book for me, filled with both lively wit and precise instruction on not only the craft of a writer, but the life of a writer as well. I cannot stress enough the importance of this book
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 23, 2002
Format: Paperback
Any writer, anywhere, needs to read this book. I assign it to undergraduate and graduate students alike. Charles Baxter explores essential elements of fiction here, and has some surprising, convincing new ideas. He writes in a witty, reflective, fascinating voice that makes these essays a pleasure to read.
Reading this book transforms people's writing, deepening their approach and understanding. Take a look at his ideas about counterpointed characters, or about what replaces the idea of "conflict" in fiction.
An amazing, brilliant book.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 25, 1997
Format: Hardcover
Charles Baxter is one of our greatest living short story writers and with Burning Down the House, we find out why. This volume of meditations on the state of fiction past, present and future, gives insight to all that is stagnant in today's writing world. But this volume is not a death knell, rather it is a wakeup call to those who have forgotten the wonderful possiblities of fiction. Any writer or serious reader of fiction will cast a freshened eye to the page after reading this book
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Sara McAulay on November 24, 1999
Format: Paperback
This is a fascinating and provocative collection of essays on writing and the state of North American literature in general. I admire Baxter's short fiction (in particular); this book not only adds another facet, the essays and his stories resonate in interesting ways.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Mr. Richard K. Weems on August 5, 2007
Format: Paperback
The best essays in this collection present the idea of a thinking writer talking about writing--not just a critic's point of view, not just a teacher's point of view. The shortcomings of the critical perspective are, I think, obvious, but the pedagogical standpoint can also be limiting in that it can too easily fall into workshop mentality, where everything is immediately accesible and clear, and good fiction does not work to please immediately but resonate much further into a person's existence and challenge things that may have once seemed so easy to understand. Baxter is, of course, a teacher, but his viewpoint is to resist easy categorizations of anything, which show him to be a thinking writer, someone who evaluates and re-evaluates and considers and reconsiders his craft a lot, because in fiction there are no easy answers.

But even that last statement is not a fair one in Baxter's essays. He argues for the antagonist, for plot, discouraging fiction that is just a play of characters where everyone is understood and sympathized for. He also argues for the music of fiction, as well as its silence and the way it handles introspection. Though Baxter's examples of writers who exemplify the method he is currently expounding are not always convincing, and sometimes he seems to work hard to make sure he notes writers of various schools and styles (though I must admit that I appreciate his respect for the old Russians), Baxter clearly wants to make his ideas inviting. He is not out to present the art of writing as one sealed away in a silver tower, where only the priveleged few can partake and perhaps even create, but one that is necessary to us all.
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