Monday, August 03, 2009

The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot and other pleasures

Since I somewhat dissed Charlie Baxter's novel Soul Thief recently, I want to post this ameliorating set of responses as well. I just finished another of Baxter's works -- the charming and stimulating The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot. Part of a series (they're up to nine so far I think) on writing from the always wonderful Graywolf Press, Baxter's little six-chapter exploration examines issues of staging, the "subterranean," the unsaid, inflection and "face" in fiction. It's a bracing, refreshing discussion and I enjoyed it so thoroughly I decided to require my fiction students to buy it and read it in my upcoming fiction-writing class.

Charlie's the editor of the series, which also includes The Art of Attention: The Poet's Eye by Donald Revell, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts, and the newest, The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song by Warren Wilson College MFA Program matriarch Ellen Bryant Voigt.

Graywolf describes the series as a new line of books "reinvigorating the practice of craft and criticism..." each book "a brief, witty and useful exploration of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry by a writer impassioned by a singular craft issue." Baxter, always self-deprecating while being quite brilliant, says in his intro, "my critical approach has a certain retro quality here and there. In my earlier book of critical essays, Burning Down the House [a book I happen to love --ms] I was eager to reintroduce an element of performative drama into criticism -- criticism, the dreariest of the arts -- by means of unsubstantiated generalizations and half-legitimated claims asserted a high volume. Here it seemed best to perform a few close readings, acting out the role of the critic-as-sleuth." His effort is entertainingly successful.

I've bought five of these compact volumes so far and after finishing Subtext I've enthusiastically plunged into Voigt's volume, which begins by amusingly describing her immersion in ear training and pitch in a summer job as a restaurant piano player at the age of 19.

These brisk, passionate treatises bring new life to the discussion of writerly issues. I'm grateful and energized by these offerings.

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