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60 of 66 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Different Twist
Baxter offers a beautifully written, unique perspective on a topic (subtext) that is rarely covered effectively in writing guides. His book reads like an extended essay and provides concrete examples of the various aspects of subtext. He goes beyond craft and succeeds in uncovering the mechanics of the art of writing. This book would be enjoyed by those who are seriously...
Published on August 23, 2007 by D. Crowell

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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A few good bits, but I was mostly confused
Nonfiction for the writer and intended to help develop a deeper, more interesting plot.

My Take
This was too subtle for me. I picked up a few useful bits here and there, but for the most part, I was just confused.

The first chapter was good, and I got all excited with the promise of what I thought was ahead.

"...create an interior...
Published 12 months ago by Kathy Davie


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60 of 66 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Different Twist, August 23, 2007
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This review is from: The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (Paperback)
Baxter offers a beautifully written, unique perspective on a topic (subtext) that is rarely covered effectively in writing guides. His book reads like an extended essay and provides concrete examples of the various aspects of subtext. He goes beyond craft and succeeds in uncovering the mechanics of the art of writing. This book would be enjoyed by those who are seriously interested in the art/craft of writing and are also well-read. Baxter's approach is intellectual, philosophical and profound. Not your basic soup to nuts approach but more suited to the thoughtful writer/reader.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Cut Above the Rest, August 18, 2008
This review is from: The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (Paperback)
In The Art of Subtext, Minneapolis novelist Charles Baxter has gone well beyond other books on the writing of prose fiction. Baxter believes that fictional techniques work when they are rooted in basic cultural assumptions; therefore, his technical advice comes from a provocative meditation on who we are today. He asks why, for instance, writers no longer introduce characters with lengthy verbal portraits of their faces. To summarize Baxter crudely, it is because in a world of makeovers and simulations, we no longer trust appreances. The techniques by which an author creates subtext are important precisely because in our culture truth itself has gone underground. The Art of Subtext is published by Graywolf Press.
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38 of 48 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The art of reading well, August 10, 2007
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This review is from: The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (Paperback)
A wonderfully well-written book on the writer's art of creating an imaginative density within the confines of plot, in order to bring added dimension to the story. While not always dealing with what I would define as subtext, as his definition is more encompassing than mine, Baxter continually brings smart ideas to the fore revealing his long experience in articulating the craft of writing. And he shows more interestingly how attention paid to the nuances of the writing adds a palpable increased appreciation to reading in general.

Some of his observations are so wonderfully right that they easily repay the price of admission, so to speak. An example:

"This collapse of distance gives the reader the frequent impression that scenes in Dostoyevsky's fiction are happening in some kind of dramatic location so close to you that you can't remove yourself from the scene. Reading Dostoyevsky is like sitting in the front row of the theater, where the actor's spit lands in your face." (p.125)

I can only aspire to be as good a reader as Charles Baxter is.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good information if you can search out the meanings, March 5, 2012
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Geni J. White (Pacific Northwest. USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (Paperback)
Charles Baxter introduces his book as the way to `examine those elements that propel readers beyond the plot of a novel or short story into the realm of what haunts the imagination: the implied, the half-visible, the unspoken." He says writers must know how to use a huge amount of details to accomplish these aims, details that imply as much as they show.

This sounds like an important method for memorable writing. However, this book may need several readings to be clearly understood and applied.

The key to subtext involves multiple details and metaphors that suggest several meanings for a scene, conversation or incident. The placement of characters in a scene (staging) and creating "unheard melodies" are two concepts explained. The author also discusses ways to write scenes, gestures, speech and `slippage' of speech as ways to apply subtext.

The book probably applies more to literary writing than to that with mass market appeal.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Believer, November 4, 2009
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This review is from: The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (Paperback)
The master short-story writer, Charles Baxter, provides a complex read on something poet Marianne Moore once expressed this way, "The power of the visible, is in the invisible." Here Baxter examines stories "with a magnifying glass, looking for the secret panel, the hidden stairway, the lovingly concealed dungeon and the ghost moaning from beneath the floor."

He shares his conclusions about staging scenes. In real life, he says, good families (i.e. normal, boring ones) don't have them, but these are the building blocks of drama. And that's the point. We want to see things played out on the page or on the screen that for one reason or another we are hesitant about in our everyday exchanges. To capture that contradictory process great stories, "don't depend so much on what the characters say they want as what they actually want but can't own up to." The author has us reconsider classics from Ahab's obsession in Moby Dick to a rather profound observation about the power of fantasy in The Great Gatsby. Then of course there is John Cheever's "The Simmer," Franz Kafka, and Chekhov's "The Lady with the Dog." But what of the dark night of the soul lit by Dostoyevsky, the world's foremost "psychologist of rage?" That comes later under "Staging a Desire."

In terms of dynamics between characters--in these scenes genteel people so fear--Baxter uses one of my favorite examples, Frost's "Home Burial." In describing the camera shots of Citizen Kane Orson Wells once said he wanted each character to have his or her own unique angle so that even if a viewer didn't know the plot the viewer would be able to understand the story. We're always looking up at Kane (Welles even built a trapdoor on the set to get the camera at a very low angle) and looking down at Susan Alexander, the singer who is his less-than-talented protégé. Remember the camera shot that comes down through the skylight of a nightclub where she's performing? Well, here we have the same thing, but it's even better because the man and woman in the Frost poem change position as the emotional advantage swings from one to the other. The man begins at the foot of the stairs and rises to eventually tower over her, however they are both upstaged by an unknown presence outside, which they glance at through the window.

We can observe these things in life or in examples of contemporary writers, such as Richard Bausch and Edward Jones. Baxter, the writer, is ever the teacher: "Dialogue, instead of bringing people together, instead tends to define their differences and then cast those differences in stone." This is a book like Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media, forty years ago, that turns things on their head. One important point I learned is what Baxter calls a "fallacy of dialogue today," that all characters are, in fact listening to what is said. In reality there is an inattentiveness, not only in the best works of Eugene O'Neil, Tonly Kushner and Lorrie Moore, but in our society outside of plays and books. The same is true about facial expression, though I have to admit he loses me a bit with this. It may be , as a student of Baxter's claims, no one is interested in faces anymore (this is the age of texting and twittering, after all), but isn't this something we seek (or should seek) for exactly that reason. To compensate for the lack of it in our lives? We watch close-ups of faces on big screens, stare at tabloid pages featuring paparazzi-stolen glimpses at celebrities. We even buy books, such as this one, to better see the Other. The strong must see the weak, if we are to count ourselves civilized. The healthy, the sick; the rich, the impoverished. Good literature helps us do that, and books like this one by Charles Baxter, help us understand why and how.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Substantive Writing, September 9, 2008
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This review is from: The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (Paperback)
I selected this book on a recommendation from a magazine and it has become a well worn reference in my library of how-to books. I recommend reading it through fast as you can, to get a feel for the concept. Then read it again for the depth. Subtexting sounds very techincal and cold, but the concept is anything but.

I was inspiried by the book and base my plot planning and character development on this concept for every project. Subtext is a writer's secret weapon. I recommend every writer take heed.

Harmonics, A Dark and Stormy Knight, Orphan Records
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27 of 37 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How To Think About the Unthinkable, July 18, 2008
This review is from: The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (Paperback)
It is plenty easy to talk about beginnings, middles, and endings, about point of view, about writing with clarity or writing with verve or writing with meter in mind. And we can, again with ease, talk the talk we usually talk about round versus flat characters, and how this writer or that one achieves roundness, say, in a major character, by way of the contradictions the character holds in tension, or in a minor character by some telling and complicating detail that exists in tension with the role that character is playing. And we can invoke Henry James and E.M. Forster and Percy Lubbock--all the usual suspects--and in so doing impart the wisdom we've all long been imparting to one another about point of view and the relationship between plot and character and the urgent need (reader's as much as writer's) for something to matter deeply to the character.

And all of these wisdoms are wise, and even though so precious few of us do them well, it's not terribly difficult to learn something about what they mean, and in so doing use them to make competent stories that show something about something, and that carry with them the added virtue (and it is a virtue) of not being boring.

The problem, though, is that, as Francine Prose recently took an entire book to explicate, there are a whole lot of near-universally lauded stories and novels that couldn't care less about some or all of this easy-to-discuss wisdom, and which nonetheless are possessed of that elusive magic that elevates story to lasting literature, on account of something that does something difficult to articulate.

We've moved, in other words, out of the realm of the Aristotelian Unities (at least in the most reductive interpretation of the same), and into the realm of Anton Chekhov and William Trevor and much late-model Alice Munro. Those writers for whom the word subtlety is invoked either as blessing or hellfire-and-damnation. The head-scratchers, as a usually charitable friend liked to uncharitably characterize them.

Literary critics have long had much to say about these writers and their works, and writers have long admired them, but there has been a dearth of intelligible assessments by writers about how these stories manage to imply and embody so much more than their size would seem to accommodate. Into this breach steps one Charles Baxter, whose exploration of subtext attempts, to quote the introduction, "to demonstrate how to think about the unthinkable," and "show you how to see the unseen."

The key to seeing this unseen, Baxter shows the reader, is a careful study of story's surface, and he offers a critical toolbox. There is a chapter on the revelation of character through dramatic placement, which uses "parallel darknesses" in the Basque novelist Bernado Atxaga's Obabakoak as a lens through which to see more clearly how subtext rises from complications of metaphor, which themselves rise from a multiplicity of surface details--"hyperdetailing" is what Baxter calls it, in a profitable digression on Frost's "Home Burial"--and a deep and sustained attention to them. The burden, clearly, is on the reader, to gaze into the hyperdetailing as deeply as the story means to allow the reader to do, but the writer keeps up his or her end of the contract by placing the character or characters in a position of special discomfort, so that they are "forced through desperate circumstances to gaze upon the world in an abnormally attentive way."

One thing Baxter seems to be noticing, here, is the thing that narratologists have been telling us for a long time, which is that the imposition of narrative is in some regards an arbitrary pursuit, given the steady stream of information that bombards us daily. For some writers, this presents an opportunity to do something mimetic in the story, by way of a corollary bombardment of detail "in pursuit of meanings that words and objects will yield to when used as means but not as ends."

Here one is reminded of the Edward P. Jones novel The Known World, in which one character might be abandoned mid-breath for another whose story does not necessarily dovetail with that of the character in whom story had invited us to invest our emotional energies, at which point the reader realizes that the possible number of stories is at least as great as the number of characters that populate any given scene, and that the privileging of one above the other might be little more than another manifestation of the self-service to which humankind seems excessively prone.

Successive chapters tackle "how fiction writers pay attention to the way people no longer pay attention," the distance and tension between what a character wants and what a character says he or she wants, "how to think about the unheard," reading and writing inflection, the virtue of ignoring mother's advice against "making a scene," and the near-lost art of portraiture, by which Baxter means, quite literally, the rendering of the physical face.

Space does not allow much more talk about Baxter's explications, but that's probably for the better, because The Art of Subtext operates in a manner similar to what it advocates, by way of an accumulation of detail, and by careful arrangement of what is shown, so it would take a review the length of the book to begin to approximate the singular argument the book has made by book's end. This is a critical triumph, to be sure, but also an aesthetic one. Like Baxter's earlier volume Burning Down the House, The Art of Subtext is a profound and necessary service to reader and writer alike.

(this review originally appeared in Pleiades)
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Simply the Best, March 7, 2012
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This review is from: The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (Paperback)
I can't recommend this book enough. I felt like I was sitting in a class taught by Charles Baxter when I read it and I didn't want it to ever end. It drove me to my notebook to write. It's that good. I just want to say "thanks" to the author for sharing his wisdom and ultimately inspiring this writer to write and to write better.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, July 13, 2011
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This review is from: The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (Paperback)
I really enjoyed this. Not a primer, but an examination of the techniques fiction writers use to direct the reader to the deeper meaning beneath the story. I intend to read the entire series of books.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A few good bits, but I was mostly confused, July 23, 2013
This review is from: The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot (Paperback)
Nonfiction for the writer and intended to help develop a deeper, more interesting plot.

My Take
This was too subtle for me. I picked up a few useful bits here and there, but for the most part, I was just confused.

The first chapter was good, and I got all excited with the promise of what I thought was ahead.

"...create an interior space, using details of location and objects that mirror a psychological condition."

I love this idea and had never consciously considered it even as I subconsciously appreciated its use in the books I read.

But then Baxter goes on to muddle it up. Or perhaps it wasn't a muddle so much as he never connected the dots with his subsequent meanderings---it read more like a random series of thoughts that connected in Baxter's mind.

Further in, there is a dissection of motivations which Baxter explains as possible plot starting points. A bit obvious, but it was a chunk I could grasp.

Oh, another interesting bit is his analysis of Freud's "wrecked by success" phrase. It's a truism that people can be just as crippled by a fear of success as they can by a fear of failure, and Baxter notes that the trauma of achieving success can also lead to useful plot conflicts.

Baxter also notes those novels which are almost all subtext including Cheever's "The Swimmer" and Franz Kafka's The Castle.

He does confuse me with his discussion of psychic deafness and referential denial as it sounds as if he's applying them in two different areas. He bounces back and forth between explaining and a silly story that makes no sense. I have to wonder if he was late getting this story written for some deadline. Although he does go on to explain "the unheard" as a denial of what we don't want to hear and a selective filtering.

I did enjoy his discussion on how, and he had some good examples. Consider the many different ways you can say a phrase depending upon how you're feeling: scared, happy, bored...

He also explains the necessity of a scene in your scenes. And by that I mean, embarrassment. You know you need conflict in every scene, and one way to achieve this is in having your characters act outrageously. Well, more outrageous than someone raised to be polite, anyway. Instead of conflict-avoidance, you need to seek out creating conflict. "Create scenes that in real life we would typically avoid." And, of course, this level of conflict would be different for each character, each scene. --Look on this necessity as an opportunity to project your own wish to behave outrageously or to fulfill a desire, but on paper. It seems that just about any of Dostoyevsky's stories can provide excellent examples of this.

"Creating a scene is thus the staging of a desire."

John Cheever's "The Five-Forty-Eight" has a scene which rings true when Miss Dent explains to Blake why she needs that gun...gave me the shivers it was so true.

Baxter does caution against being melodramatic, however. --In my opinion, melodrama is not drama that makes the reader uneasy. Instead it's going over the top in emotion or reaction.

His chapter on "Loss of Face" is, interesting to read, but again, confusing. I'm not sure if it's my own projections, desires, or what, but I don't (or hope I don't!) judge a book by its cover or a face by its beauty or lack of. Are we truly suspicious of beautiful people? And as for contemporary use of clothing and body language as a way to characterize someone. Yeah?? So?? Isn't this more accurate than using the way a person's face looks?

I do agree with Baxter that in our current society we've all learned to put on a face, that people are on guard against others. Look at the Ted Bundys of the world!! I do wish, however, that someone would explain to me how the "history of racism and the history of disability studies have invalidated reading someone's character based on the appearance of their face". How does this even relate? Is it intended to provide validation to Baxter's comments?

Ooh, I did like his use of Paula Fox's characterization of Laura's smile. How he explained her description of its transformation into something of malice! Eeek!

One of the pluses is a list of the books to which Baxter refers throughout the text. I just wish he'd included either the page number upon which the book appeared or a hint as to its purpose in being included as an example.

I gotta say, for all in all, this book simply gave me a headache trying to understand it. It wasn't worth the few gems.

The Cover
The cover is split by five horizontal bands: the largest, the black, focuses your attention on the title; two "pinstripe" bands of colonial blue separate the royal blue band with its subtitle, and the remaining band at the bottom reverses the top color choices with the author's name in black against a white background.

The title indicates a depth, an exploration that goes inside the plot, The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot.
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The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot
The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter (Paperback - July 24, 2007)
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