marginalia || Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, by Charles Baxter

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 to myself as a 20th birthday present. And we come to here–]

Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction is a collection of nine, uh, essays about, uh, fiction. Written by Charles Baxter, he says in the preface: “…[the book] addresses a set of subjects of urgent concern to me, issues that in the broadest sense have to do with the imagination’s grip on daily life and how one lives in the pressure of that grip. The essays return to the scene of writing as a location where some of these matters can be addressed, and where the pressure is greatest.” It’s a book for writers (or writers-in-training) and readers alike. Part reflection on the craft and the genre and part instruction (and partly writing-ideas-well, since I scribbled like mad along its margins), he examines different (and specific) aspects of fiction in each of his essays. Among them: defamiliarization, the death of the antagonist-protagonist trope in literary fiction, the “inner life of objects,” epiphanies, and melodrama.

I’m always sucked in when I read his essays. I mean, I’m beginning to suspect that I love Baxter more as a writer-about-fiction than an actual writer of fiction. I mean, I like his fiction, but there’s just something about his reflections about fiction. The language? Yes, of course—

The habit of narrative is unceasing. We understand our lives, or try to, by the stories we tell. (From the preface, p.xii)

It seems to be in the nature of plots to bring a truth or a desire up to the light, and it has often been the task of those who write fiction to expose elements that are kept secret in a personality, so that the mask over that personality (or any system) falls either temporarily or permanently. When the mask falls, something of value comes up. Masks are interesting partly for themselves and partly for what they mask. The reality behind the mask is like a shadow-creature rising to the bait: the tug of an unseen force, frightening and energetic. What emerges is a precious thing, precious because buried or lost or repressed. (From “Counterpointed Characterization,” p.113)

The tone and language never feel pedantic, not even professorial. There’s the impression that he’s just this guy who happens to palpably love the craft, knows how to write it, knows how to write about it–well. And I think that’s it: he loves what he’s doing, he loves the very existence of the craft. You can feel it, especially when he examines a short story or a detail of a novel (and the literature he cites is never confined to the classics). It’s a dignified giddiness that’s the undercurrent of most of these essays. And I like that. There’s no arrogance in his writing–just shared wonderment.

And he can be adorable. The essay titled “Rhyming Action” makes this book the clincher for me. It begins with the dichotomy between poets and prose writers, and Baxter (who calls himself an “ex-poet”) often uses hilarious examples [well, at least I laughed] to get his point across.

[Prose writers’] souls are usually heavy and managerial. Prose writers of fiction are by nature a sullen bunch. The strain of inventing one plausible event after another in a coherent anrrative chain tends to show in their faces. As Nietzsche says about Christians, you can tell from their faces that they don’t enjoy doing what they do. Fiction writers cluster in the unlit corners of the room, silently observing everybody, including the poets, whoa are usually having a fine time in the center spotlight, making a spectacle of themselves as they eat the popcorn and and drink the beer and gossip about other poets. Usually it’s the poets who leave the mess just as it was, the empty bottles and the stains on the carpet and the scrawled phrases they have written down on the backs of pizza delivery boxes–phrases to be used for future poems, o doubt, and it’s the prose writers who in the morning usually have to clean all of this up. Poets think that a household mess is picturesque–for them it’s the contemporary equivalent of daffodils… (From “Rhyming Action,” p.138)

[Okay, I quoted a lot, haha, but I could go on and on–this essay’s just kick-ass.] And then he cites “rhyming action” as a detail or a technique prose writers can loan from them poets. I love it, the dry humor, the self-deprecation–and, yeah, I learned stuff. I learned a lot. And I won’t share them because I want to write about them, haha.

So. Lovers of fiction–writer or writer-in-training or reader: this book is wunnerful. It is. It’s one of my best finds of this year, this decade (ha!). I mean, it excites me; it makes me want to bust out my tattered notebook and write, for baby pandas’ sake. I thank the Book Gods for sending this book my way.

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11 comments

  1. Dignified giddiness is the best kind! I highly recommend Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris for giddiness about reading.

    1. Hi, Nathalie. Thanks for the rec–I’ve been seeing this in a lot of “books about books” lists, and I’ll certainly keep my eye out for it. :]

  2. Great review. I didn’t care for Feast of Love, but I am really enjoying reading books about books for the Bibliophilic Challenge, so if I come across this one, i just might give it a go.

    1. Please do, it’s a really great book. :]

  3. Thanks for sharing–was searching for the e-book version of BDTH but haven’t found it yet. Can’t wait to read it when I finally do get it.

    :)

    1. No problem, Dawn. Good luck on your search–this is a wonderful book, on its own, and it’s so helpful too. :)

  4. […] analysis so rarely seen in reviews or critical response to fiction today. This reminds me of why Baxter’s Burning Down the House is one of my favorite books of essays on writing — weaving astute cultural observation and […]

  5. […] Burning Down the House, by Charles Baxter […]

  6. […] and confront my own pages]. Occasionally, I’ll seek out books-on-writing by writers I respect. Charles Baxter is […]

  7. […] But the advice it offers is rather conventional—far more fulfilling if you read Roland Barthes or Charles Baxter or Jonathan Franzen—even simplistic. And that latter word can be used to describe her views on […]

  8. Trying to improve my writing, get it up to not quite bad. This seems like a good book, thanks for the recommendation

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