Monday, August 13, 2007

The Art of Subtext

Although I've not been much of a blogger this month due to excessive heat and general all-round slothfulness, I have been reading every chance I've had.

I started out the month (of course) with a book not on my August stack: Charles Baxter's The Art of Subtext, a book I'd pre-ordered in July and one that looked so tasty when it showed up in my mailbox on August 2, that I had to scarf it down in its entirety before starting on the official list.

Although I've always heard that Baxter's essay collection Burning Down the House is excellent, I've been hoarding my copy of that one for several years, waiting till I'm at the point of writing fiction again before taking it off the shelf for careful study. The Art of Subtext, at a mere 175 pages, seemed designed for a quick zip-through, and that's just what I gave it.

Baxter, as the back cover tells us, "discusses and illustrates the hidden subtextual overtones and undertones in fictional works haunted by the unspoken, the suppressed, and the secreted." Frost, Fitzgerald, Melville, Bellow, Welty, Cheever, Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Lorrie Moore are among the authors examined.

A few tidbits:

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. Escessive detailing is its signpost. Certainly it involves the writer in the stagecraft 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. . . Staging, you might argue, is the poetry of action and setting when it evokes the otherwise unstated.


Although we live in a post-Freudian, post-humanist, postmodern, post-everything age, there are still plenty of unthinkable thoughts around, and in the Chekhov tradition they serve as the hard core of narratives. An unthinkable thought is not one that hasn't occurred to somebody, nor is it a thought that someone considers to be wrong. An unthinkable thought threatens a person's entire existence and is therefore subversive and consequently can be thought of and has been thought of, but has been pushed out of the mind's currency and subsumed into its margins where it festers. Dark nights of the soul are lit by inconceivable ideas. Any story may draw its source of power from an unthinkable thought.


People who have practiced good manners and conflict-avoidance all their lives have to remember to leave those habits of mind at the door when they enter the theater of fiction. Stories thrive on had behavior, bad manners, confrontations, and unpalatable characters who by wish or compulsion make their desires visible by creating scenes. Imagine Dostoyevsky's contempt at the idea that his characters ought to be more pleasant, more presentable. The perennial Dostoyevskian question is, "Do you want the truth or agreeable-seeming falsehoods?" Fiction is that place where human beings do not have to be better than they really are, where characters can and should confront each other, where they must create scenes, where desire will have its day, where all truth is beautiful. Fiction is the antidote to the conduct manual.


Another way of thinking about what often passes for conversation takes us toward my central subject--the half-noticed and the half-heard. Such gaps between lines of dialogue can open up the subterranean, given the way that pieces of sequential dialogue simple refuse to match up. Conversational slippage comprises the non sequiturs of everyday life. Therapists are always on the lookout for such forms of unlogic. Sometimes, what you don't hear tells me more about you than what you actually say. Our times are marked by mishearing and miscueing and selective listening and selective response--features associated with information glut and self-inflammation. Distraction may be a symptom of attention deficit, a characteristic feature of our data-soaked era, or it may simply be an outgrowth of simple hypertrophied egomania. Everyone knows someone who listens in a hypothetical manner.


If we do not see the Other, do we still count ourselves as civilized? If so, on what basis? The small person must by necessity learn to read the face of the large person to survive. But the strong are under no necessity to acknowledge the faces of the weak; if they do so, it is for the sake of recognizing something of humanity in those who might otherwise be invisible.


  1. I can see why this book jumped the line into must read now! It's going on my TBR list!

  2. Sandra10:42 AM

    Fascinating quotes; I'm intrigued and, like Stefanie, the book goes straight onto my wants list!

  3. "Fiction is the antidote to the conduct manual." :)

    Great quotes! All of them. Thank you for sharing!


"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."

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