(A review of Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, published in The Writer)

Most guides to writing fiction focus on those things that good writers show. Writers show setting. They show character. They show Aunt Evelyn’s butternut squash. But what about the things writers don’t show but rather suggest, things we as readers can’t always put in words? To put it loosely, how do writers harness the invisible?

In his book The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, the first of a series on writing craft to be published by Graywolf Press, Charles Baxter discusses a rather elusive topic: the role of the implied, the unspoken, and the unseen or half-visible in fiction. Using both classic and contemporary works, he shows how the best writers fix their eyes not only on surfaces, but on the subterranean realms beneath them. Characters’ actions, gestures, and facial expressions—as well as the objects they ply and manipulate—can all plunge us straight down the rabbit hole. And in the process, what isn’t shown directly can broaden a story or novel’s meaning. As Baxter states, “A novel is not a summary of its plot but a collection of instances, of luminous specific details that take us in the direction of the unsaid and unseen.”

Part writer’s guide, part work of literary criticism and inquiry, the book is composed of six essays. Each examines a particular path into subtext, a “channel” through which the seen and unseen can cross. One is devoted to tone of voice (hidden feelings erupt), while another deals entirely with faces (the mask begins to fall). As a guidebook, it’s remarkably down-to-earth, while as criticism it propels us on in a searching, lively manner, drawing in everything from Kierkegaard’s thoughts on the unknowable to airport reading habits to a memorable ride at Dinosaur World.

Baxter engages the unseen largely through close and studied readings. Each passage—from writers as varied as Eudora Welty, Edward P. Jones, and Lorrie Moore—is a starting point for discussion, sparking off ideas on all sides. Thoughts on Fitzgerald’s obsessive Gatsby, for instance, lead to insights on point of view (he needs a witness to tell his own story) and motivation (his desire is out of proportion with its object). And these both tie in with subtext: Gatsby’s inability to understand himself “creates a subterranean chasm within the story, where genuine desires hide beneath the superficial ones.” Baxter takes on the role of “critic-as-sleuth,” hounding the evidence he finds. And as a good gumshoe, he lets the evidence—the work at hand—guide his thoughts rather than coming to it with preset conclusions.

To help us navigate, sometimes Baxter invents new terms (“micro-detailing,” “congested subtext”) or modifies old ones (“staging”). Each term is well-explained and, I think, justified, making rough terrain manageable and providing information the traditional terms can’t.

Practical advice nets both large- and small-scale issues. Sometimes, this takes the form of exercises: “[G]ive the character exactly what s/he wants, and see what happens.” When it doesn’t, however, it remains tightly bound to craft. On dialogue, for instance: “These days, the best and most artful dialogue is marked by the inattentiveness of its characters.” And on conflict: “In daily life, a writer may practice conflict avoidance, but in fiction a writer must welcome conflict and walk right into it.” Baxter’s style provokes and challenges, inviting participation; this is a book to be annotated, dog-eared, and brooded over long after it’s read.

If Hemingway’s “iceberg principle” is correct and the bulk of fiction’s structure, beneath the surface words, goes unseen, it’s surprising that the idea isn’t more often discussed. I hope this book will help change that. Baxter not only provides a language for treating the unspoken, but insight into how, in good writing, it makes its presence felt. For Baxter, evoking subtext is more than a writer’s trick, a way to keep one’s readers charmed. Rather, it’s an attempt to access the private realm, the buried self, the dark inner core that makes us human. And although he can help us get there, in the end there are no maps. For those who see mystery as a vital part of fiction, this book is a reminder of just how wide—and how deep—is the territory that lies ahead.

(Copyright @ 2008 by Stephen Delaney)