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Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction

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"Lately I've been possessed of a singularly unhappy idea: The greatest influence on American fiction for the last twenty years may have been Richard Nixon." What happens to American fiction in a time when villains are deprived of their villainy; when our consumer culture insists on happy endings? Did Richard Nixon start a trend of dysfunctional narration that is now rife "Lately I've been possessed of a singularly unhappy idea: The greatest influence on American fiction for the last twenty years may have been Richard Nixon." What happens to American fiction in a time when villains are deprived of their villainy; when our consumer culture insists on happy endings? Did Richard Nixon start a trend of dysfunctional narration that is now rife throughout fiction? In Burning Down the House, Baxter delves into the social and political circumstances that influence today's "urgent issues of storytelling." Baxter invites unexpected connections: between gossip and characterization; between Puritanism, consumerism, and epiphanies; between violence and data processing. By asking readers to "explore the imagination's grip on daily life and how one lives in the pressure of that grip, " Baxter offers a unique perspective into the reading and writing of contemporary fiction.


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"Lately I've been possessed of a singularly unhappy idea: The greatest influence on American fiction for the last twenty years may have been Richard Nixon." What happens to American fiction in a time when villains are deprived of their villainy; when our consumer culture insists on happy endings? Did Richard Nixon start a trend of dysfunctional narration that is now rife "Lately I've been possessed of a singularly unhappy idea: The greatest influence on American fiction for the last twenty years may have been Richard Nixon." What happens to American fiction in a time when villains are deprived of their villainy; when our consumer culture insists on happy endings? Did Richard Nixon start a trend of dysfunctional narration that is now rife throughout fiction? In Burning Down the House, Baxter delves into the social and political circumstances that influence today's "urgent issues of storytelling." Baxter invites unexpected connections: between gossip and characterization; between Puritanism, consumerism, and epiphanies; between violence and data processing. By asking readers to "explore the imagination's grip on daily life and how one lives in the pressure of that grip, " Baxter offers a unique perspective into the reading and writing of contemporary fiction.

30 review for Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction

  1. 4 out of 5

    Mike Puma

    Beware on this one! (Emphasis greatly exaggerated). Don’t believe the reviewers on this title—believe Baxter, the author. Many reviewers (and I suspect they are authors or aspiring authors) suggest that their interests in this title is what the title is about—consequently, you’ll see many reviewers describe Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction as a book for writers, on writing as a ‘craft’ (as if this book has how-to potential), or on the act of writing fiction. These reviewers aren’t lying Beware on this one! (Emphasis greatly exaggerated). Don’t believe the reviewers on this title—believe Baxter, the author. Many reviewers (and I suspect they are authors or aspiring authors) suggest that their interests in this title is what the title is about—consequently, you’ll see many reviewers describe Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction as a book for writers, on writing as a ‘craft’ (as if this book has how-to potential), or on the act of writing fiction. These reviewers aren’t lying to you or trying to deceive you in any way; none of them seem malicious or poorly informed. Instead, they see what Baxter’s collection offers them. Other reviewers seem more inclined to believe Baxter’s explicit subtitle: Essays on Fiction. The essays have as much to offer readers as writers. Baxter clearly delights in reading and writing. In this he is rather like James Wood (a personal favorite) pointing to the well-placed word or phrase or sentence and shouting: Look at this! Isn’t this something? or Check this out! For me, this is the best kind of criticism, a writer/reader/critic sharing what’s has caught his or her eyes in a particular work and describing how those elements work with enthusiasm and from an informed perspective. I’d prefer to give this title four-and-a-half stars, not because it has faults or flaws, but because I wish there was more of it.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Steven

    His focus--as is the focus of most books on writing from the faculties of American Creative Writing programs (or books aimed at their students)--is on Realism, the so called well-made realist story. Keeping that focus caveat in mind, this is the best book about writing fiction I’ve ever read. I’ve read it through thrice, and some of the essays five or six times, and every time through I find something new and powerful. The unspoken message of these essays is to forget everything you think a His focus--as is the focus of most books on writing from the faculties of American Creative Writing programs (or books aimed at their students)--is on Realism, the so called well-made realist story. Keeping that focus caveat in mind, this is the best book about writing fiction I’ve ever read. I’ve read it through thrice, and some of the essays five or six times, and every time through I find something new and powerful. The unspoken message of these essays is to forget everything you think a story is supposed to be, try to write from somewhere beyond those preconceptions. In the essays he tackles some of these “rules” head on: epiphanies, melodrama, consistent characters, sound and fury. It’s quite liberating reading because he’s saying it’s okay to stop trying to make things happen that you think you should be—like epiphanic endings. He also makes strong arguments for other ways not to write: with familiarity, without antagonists, with characters who don’t accept responsibility for their actions. Although this book is aimed at writers, this book should also be required reading for editors of literary journals. While Baxter is trying to shape writers, disabuse them of certain misconceptions about fiction, the fact is that too many editors look for exactly what he's saying not to do. That's how those rules became rules. Ever had a story rejected because the character wasn't consistent (believable), or that there was no character growth (had no epiphany)? Thought so. Great book within its context of realism.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Taka

    Really, really good-- The essays on dysfunctional narratives, defamiliarization, epiphanies, inanimate objects, and melodrama were so full of insights that they more than make up for the less-than-stellar essays in this collection. Especially eye-opening for me were the essays on epiphanies, inanimate objects, and melodrama—these in particular made me excited to write fiction again. One of the things I appreciate about his essays is that despite his polemical titles (e.g., "Against Epiphanies") Really, really good-- The essays on dysfunctional narratives, defamiliarization, epiphanies, inanimate objects, and melodrama were so full of insights that they more than make up for the less-than-stellar essays in this collection. Especially eye-opening for me were the essays on epiphanies, inanimate objects, and melodrama—these in particular made me excited to write fiction again. One of the things I appreciate about his essays is that despite his polemical titles (e.g., "Against Epiphanies") he doesn't really argue for any one type of fictional devices/styles/patterns; he looks at literary patterns and codified "rules" of writing and basically dismantle—or to use his own words—burns them down. In the essay on epiphanies, for example, he questions the predominance of epiphany stories by pointing out there has been a deluge of insights—both forced and natural—in contemporary fiction, but he describes what a successful epiphany looks like and also shows alternative ways to end a story (with an action not completed, a la Carver's early stories or with a mystery a la Borges). Or take the essay on inanimate objects, it's basically the same move. He traces the historical roots of "pathetic fallacy" where a writer attributes human emotions to inanimate objects. Usually that's a no-no in contemporary fiction, but Charles Baxter shows pretty convincingly that instead of one-to-one correspondence with the main characters' emotions, objects can—and should—be at least as expressive and energetic as the characters themselves. And finally, the essay on melodrama. Again, he shows the word to be not what we think it is, arguing it's a form and not an aesthetic judgment or pejorative. In his own words, "Melodrama is the recognition, dramatically, that understanding sometimes fails, articulation fails, and enlightenment fails." The opposite of melodrama is humanism/enlightenment: that every action is explainable and forgivable. In melodrama, the villain uses his or her power for evil means. There is no explanation, no understanding. By its nature, melodrama claims, evil is inexplicable; it's just there and you can't explain it away. This really struck a chord in me, as I believe many actions, many human actions, that is, are so complex and hard to understand (WHY DID HE SHOOT ALL THOSE INNOCENT STUDENTS?), even hopelessly incomprehensible. This leads to a related but slightly tangential matter. Recently, a learned reviewer of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 said he didn't really want to keep reading it past Book 1 because, he felt, there was not enough humanism in the book, that it portrayed evil as evil and didn't go beyond that. Now, this could be a valid criticism, and I sort of get where the reviewer is coming from. A novelist ought to look at evil and make some sense out of it. Yes, for the most part I agree, but that's the position Humanism takes, that every action is understandable—or at least illuminable. The criticism, when leveled at melodramatic works, doesn't quite work because for Murakami, evil is unknowable. All that violence and criminal actions portrayed in the book—and those mysterious Little People—they are just there in this world, incomprehensible. Again and again, Charles Baxter's essays challenge contemporary fictional norms and show us whole landscapes of alternative possibilities in fiction, and that, to me as a writer, was exciting.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Shane

    A series of academic essays on off-beat literary topics. I have to grant the author credit for venturing into these contentious areas. In his words, he is "burning down the house." Some of the issues raised, points made, or just left to our judgement are: 1) Plot driven vs. Epiphanic story - the author seems to argue that despite the majority of post WWII literature being epiphanic (50%-80% since 1940), and with most short stories falling into this category, epiphanic does not work for him A series of academic essays on off-beat literary topics. I have to grant the author credit for venturing into these contentious areas. In his words, he is "burning down the house." Some of the issues raised, points made, or just left to our judgement are: 1) Plot driven vs. Epiphanic story - the author seems to argue that despite the majority of post WWII literature being epiphanic (50%-80% since 1940), and with most short stories falling into this category, epiphanic does not work for him because none of his epiphanies have come true. 2) Outrage sells, the truth is boring. I can't disagree with him here - read a newspaper these days - where does the truth lie? 3) Ever since Nixon said "mistakes happened", instead of "I made a mistake," there are no defined heroes and villains any more. Talk show audiences are expected to "vote" on the villains of the piece, and villainy is a matter of taste. 4) Setting should not mirror the mood of the character in it. Settings should have a life of their own. I therefore conjured up an image of the mass murderer out killing everyone in the park, while the sun shines, the butterflies from flower to flower, and the birds sing. 5) Plot needs not form only by conflicting characters but by contrasting or counterpoint characters. 6) Poets are like butterflies, while prose writers are dull worker bees. Poets prophesy backward, returning in a circular fashion to the deja vu. Prose writers are constantly observing every facet of you so that they can place you in their next fiction. 7) Punishment and suffering are narratively more picturesque than pleasure, Paradise is what happens when the story is over. 8) Melodrama is associated with plot. But melodrama engages and informs where mere words fail. 9) Cynicism is hypocritical - it enjoys what it claims to despise. Hemingway was a cynic.Cynicism's second cousin is irony. 10) The Unconscious vs the Sentimental Artist - to the former art is natural and uncompromised by self-analysis, to the latter (apparently all MFA's fall into this category) human emotion is analysed to death and placed on a scale similar to music, to be selected when appropriately required. I could imagine a sentimental writer, dipping into his arsenal of scaled human emotions and taking out a pinch of cynicism, a touch of bitterness, a slice of of anger and a hint of gloom to portray a character suffering from depression. Depressing! 11) Writing about happinness, stillness, and silence, where atmosphere transplants action, is the last frontier for the imagination. 12) Defamiliarization - making the the familiar strange and the strange familiar. These were engaging topics. However, at times I found the author straying off the central argument to cover several anecdotal examples before returning to make his point, and this made the reading difficult. Perhaps he falls into that category of Unconscious Artist, although I suspect he comes form the Sentimentalist school.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    Charles Baxter's talents as a superb writer, especially of short fiction, are well known. His recently published collection of his best short stories "Gryphon" is a virtuoso display of talent, cataloging his finest work over an amazing career. I've found that it is a rarity that great fiction writers can make the transition to be great essayists, especially when it comes to writing on the subject of "writing". Authors often take a reductive path of explaining the art and it often turns into a Charles Baxter's talents as a superb writer, especially of short fiction, are well known. His recently published collection of his best short stories "Gryphon" is a virtuoso display of talent, cataloging his finest work over an amazing career. I've found that it is a rarity that great fiction writers can make the transition to be great essayists, especially when it comes to writing on the subject of "writing". Authors often take a reductive path of explaining the art and it often turns into a discussion on something completely different (e.g. Vonnegut's "Like Shaking Hands With God"). So to hold the center, to take the beast by its horns and avoid self righteous naval gazing is an accomplishment. And Baxter does it, without apology and with verve. The essays "Talking Forks" and "Maps and Legends of Hell" are both so excellent, so thought provoking - I'm still thinking about them both, not sure if I completely agree with all he posits, but glad that he's infected me with the meme to get me thinking. And that's just what Baxter intends with these essays: get the reader out of his/her comfort zone and challenge us to think about what we like and don't like about fiction, why we should hate epiphanies in stories (should we?) and ponder why the term melodrama has become a pejorative in the English language. I can't recommend this book strongly enough for anyone interested in literature.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Michael

    Kind of a master class between covers. Baxter's essays are less nuts-and-bolts craft oriented and more extended deep thoughts about literature and story and how they work. As such, the pieces feel like long graduate seminars that push you to more deeply consider how writing works. Every essay in this book is terrific, though several stood out for me for personal reasons—an encomium to Donald Barthelme; a long consideration of the worth of melodrama (and its sort-of complement, an essay about Kind of a master class between covers. Baxter's essays are less nuts-and-bolts craft oriented and more extended deep thoughts about literature and story and how they work. As such, the pieces feel like long graduate seminars that push you to more deeply consider how writing works. Every essay in this book is terrific, though several stood out for me for personal reasons—an encomium to Donald Barthelme; a long consideration of the worth of melodrama (and its sort-of complement, an essay about dysfunctional narratives); a nifty essay about poetic "rhyming action" and how it functions in prose; and two essays that again felt paired somehow, about stillness and about happiness, both of which would seem to run counter to the demands of dramatic writing. Baxter is, of course, one of our great short story writers, but he's also clearly one of our most serious scholars of story mechanics from a deep-within-form point of view. An invaluable book.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Celeste Ng

    The best collections of essays on fiction I've ever read. Insightful, accessible, and yet somehow still elegantly written themselves.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Gladia

    I doubt I was able to fully understand and take advantage of Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House, but I surely enjoyed it. This is a collection of essays on fiction that the author put together while teaching at the MFA program at the University of Michigan. I enjoy the finished product of a book of fiction on a regular basis but I rarely, if ever, stop and observe the structure of what I have in front of my eyes. One of the first such essays is on ‘Dysfunctional Narratives’ and I love the I doubt I was able to fully understand and take advantage of Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House, but I surely enjoyed it. This is a collection of essays on fiction that the author put together while teaching at the MFA program at the University of Michigan. I enjoy the finished product of a book of fiction on a regular basis but I rarely, if ever, stop and observe the structure of what I have in front of my eyes. One of the first such essays is on ‘Dysfunctional Narratives’ and I love the caustic analysis Baxter does of the infamous sentence “Mistakes were made”. Related to that, the writer analyses the presence, or lack thereof, of mistakes in fiction. Mistakes, as important in fiction just as in reality. "There is such a thing as the poetry of a mistake, and when you say, “Mistakes were made” you deprive an action of its poetry, and you sound like a weasel. When you say, “I fucked up,” the action retains its meaning, its sordid origin, its obscenity, and its poetry. Poetry is quite compatible with obscenity...In an atmosphere of constant moral judgment, characters are not often permitted to make interesting and intelligent mistakes and then to acknowledge them. The whole idea of “intelligent mistake”, the importance of the mistake made on an impulse, has gone out of the window." There are several passages that say something that I feel like I knew but was completely unable to express and Baxter does a wonderful job to voice my, but mostly his, mind. The following description of imagination is delicious and the author puts this concept in an interesting light I never considered before. "There is always something anarchic about the imagination: It likes to find details that don’t belong, that don’t fit. On the way to divorce court, we stop at the Dairy Queen. Your mean-spirited neighbor plays the violin and weeps while performing “Humoresque.” Street gangs sometimes act like families, and families sometimes act like street gangs. The familiar gives way, not to the weird, but to the experience of a truth caught in midair. It produces the near laughter of recognition, as if every truth contains within it another truth that neatly contradicts it." Last essay that tickled my interest was the one on ‘Defamiliarization’, which, as it turns out, is exactly what you need in order to see yourself in a story and so connect to it. This excerpt kind of drives me crazy, the moments when literature exists? Baxter describes them like no one else. "Defamiliarization is finally more about the way in which we recognize ourselves in an action and simultaneously see someone we don’t recognize…It’s like that moment when, often early in the morning, perhaps in a strange house, you pass before a mirror you hadn’t known would be there. You see a glimpse of someone reflected in that mirror, and a moment passes before you recognize that that person is yourself. Literature exists in moments like that."

  9. 4 out of 5

    Julie

    This book is what my 87-year old mother would call "real interesting." It is also a book she would never in her life read, because in addition to being interesting, it is also "real hard work." While I disagree with author Baxter on several points, particularly the literary use of the epiphany and pathetic fallacy, I learned so much from this book, and re-thought so many ideas that I assumed I'd never give another passing moment to, that I have to say I'm glad I read it. I'm also exhausted. The This book is what my 87-year old mother would call "real interesting." It is also a book she would never in her life read, because in addition to being interesting, it is also "real hard work." While I disagree with author Baxter on several points, particularly the literary use of the epiphany and pathetic fallacy, I learned so much from this book, and re-thought so many ideas that I assumed I'd never give another passing moment to, that I have to say I'm glad I read it. I'm also exhausted. The following paragraph may give you a clue as to why: Cynicism and its spiritual second-cousin, irony, are regular combatants in Barthelme's stories, but there is something wrong with both of them; the stories work hard to disclose what it is. For one thing, cynicism is hypocritical: It enjoys what it claims to despise. It is happy in its unhappy consciousness. It understands the destructiveness of its own pleasures but does nothing to stop it. It is enlightened about its own moral condition. It will agree to any accusation made against it. World-weariness is its poetry. Growing out of snobbery, its only pleasure is manipulation. Cynicism is irony that has moved into a condition of institutional power; cynicism and power have a tendency to breed each other. But Barthelme's stories—especially the early ones and the novel Snow White—typically struggle against institutional cynicism and the language employed in its cause. To use a phrase by the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, employed in another context, these are "etudes in the higher banalities." Far from being an exercise in cynicism, the narrative voice in Barthelme consistently attacks cynicism—the cynicism of official institutional spokespersons. But the weapon that comes most readily to hand is irony, which creates the (as Barthelme might say) interesting struggle and tension in his writing. If you don't find that quotation both interesting and exhausting, then I'd say that you are a better man than I.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Janet Lynch

    I admit in all my thirty or so years of fiction writing, I have never made it through a book about how to write fiction. I would read only a few pages, and then my eyes would glaze over and then I would decide to do what I have always done: try to write fiction by reading and writing it. For that reason, I decided to plough through this collection of essays to the end. Baxter is easy to put down because he’s so dense. It took me months to get through this book, years if I count back to when I I admit in all my thirty or so years of fiction writing, I have never made it through a book about how to write fiction. I would read only a few pages, and then my eyes would glaze over and then I would decide to do what I have always done: try to write fiction by reading and writing it. For that reason, I decided to plough through this collection of essays to the end. Baxter is easy to put down because he’s so dense. It took me months to get through this book, years if I count back to when I bought it. When I finished reading and annotating the text, I went back through the essays and took copious notes like a good, diligent student. It was a lot of work, but I’m going to keep these notes at hand when I write and refer to them often. Every fiction writer should read this; I believe Baxter is a literary genius.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Julia Fierro

    The best collection of essays on writing I've read. Thoughtful, compassionate to the diversity of writing styles, processes, intentions. I especially enjoyed the essay on "epiphanies" and used it in my "Against the Epiphany" MFA thesis argument over a decade ago. Of course, now that I'm a bit older, I love a perfectly executed, surprising AND inevitable epiphany. Maybe we yearn for them more as life speeds forward? *See the ending of ZZ Packer's perfect short story, "Brownies," for a subtle but The best collection of essays on writing I've read. Thoughtful, compassionate to the diversity of writing styles, processes, intentions. I especially enjoyed the essay on "epiphanies" and used it in my "Against the Epiphany" MFA thesis argument over a decade ago. Of course, now that I'm a bit older, I love a perfectly executed, surprising AND inevitable epiphany. Maybe we yearn for them more as life speeds forward? *See the ending of ZZ Packer's perfect short story, "Brownies," for a subtle but affecting, and authentically felt (by both character and reader) epiphany.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Robert Wechsler

    In a consciously provocative manner, Baxter takes on some complex fiction-related concepts, such as epiphanies, melodrama, objects in fiction, defamiliarization, and why good fiction isn’t happy. He’s an excellent teacher who knows how to prod readers into thinking differently about the building blocks of literature.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Matt Gomez

    "Burning Down the House" had some amazing moments of insight into the world of modern fiction writing. I'd give it a higher rating, but some of the essays dragged and felt like complications of relatively straight-forward issues. In some essays, Baxter's premises seem to drift a little too much. However, in the essays where he hits his mark, readers can expect to glean some incredible insights that will benefit their writing.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Sasha Martinez

    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 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.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Charles Finch

    I loved this. So insightful about writing fiction. I might re-read it immediately.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jane

    This is a thoughtful, surprising, and quietly exciting set of linked essays on fiction. Though it's by a fiction writer, this is not (thank goodness) another how-to. Baxter observes aspects of fiction -- protagonists, melodrama, places and objects, action -- and revealingly reads examples of them in works by such authors as Jane Smiley, Grace Paley, Chekhov, Sylvia Townsend Warner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wright Morris, Marilynne Robinson, Donald Barthelme, and others. Baxter shows us new ways of This is a thoughtful, surprising, and quietly exciting set of linked essays on fiction. Though it's by a fiction writer, this is not (thank goodness) another how-to. Baxter observes aspects of fiction -- protagonists, melodrama, places and objects, action -- and revealingly reads examples of them in works by such authors as Jane Smiley, Grace Paley, Chekhov, Sylvia Townsend Warner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Wright Morris, Marilynne Robinson, Donald Barthelme, and others. Baxter shows us new ways of looking at works we thought we knew well, and introduces us to features of works we know not at all. He organizes each essay around a particular concern. My favorites were "Talking Forks: Fiction and the Inner Life of Objects" and "Stillness." I never fully understood "Maps and Legends of Hell: Notes on Melodrama," although there are flashes there -- on Paley's "The Littler Girl," for example -- that stand alone as important insights. All of the essays tell the reader, too, something about the larger culture. "Dysfunctional Narratives" is maybe the best example of this -- Baxter's definitions for what he calls a "me" protagonist and an "I" protagonist make us consider not only victims and agents in fiction but also their counterparts (Nixon, most notably) in contemporary life.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Steven

    This is an excellent collection of essays, for both writers and readers of literary fiction. The essays are written from a teacher's perspective (Baxter was heading the MFA program at the University of Michigan while working on this book), one who notices trends in his students' work and then examines those trends to see how they fit in the literary culture at large. Baxter is an astute observer of this culture, well read in literature, philosophy, and psychology, and able to apply all three to This is an excellent collection of essays, for both writers and readers of literary fiction. The essays are written from a teacher's perspective (Baxter was heading the MFA program at the University of Michigan while working on this book), one who notices trends in his students' work and then examines those trends to see how they fit in the literary culture at large. Baxter is an astute observer of this culture, well read in literature, philosophy, and psychology, and able to apply all three to the human condition and come up with fresh insights about how we think of ourselves and others, and how this is best reflected in the literary arts. But, like his fiction, what is best about Baxter's writing is its accessibility. Humor, personal anecdote, and a passion for the written word are all just as common in these essays as the aforementioned academic approaches. Because of this, reading this book feels more like sitting down with a friend to discuss what you've been reading and thinking about lately, rather than sitting in a lecture. So, go for it, grab a cup of coffee, and curl up with Baxter in your favorite reading spot. It's a date meant for readers.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Margery

    This is a great book if you don't want "how to's" about writing, but rather want to know what an excellent fiction writer thinks is important about today's writing. There are ways to improve your own writing by reading (and thinking about) this book, but they're more in the realm of philosophical ideas. An example: Baxter thinks that this culture's recent passive approach to responsibility ("mistakes were made" a la Richard Nixon) has influenced its fiction as well. We don't have characters any This is a great book if you don't want "how to's" about writing, but rather want to know what an excellent fiction writer thinks is important about today's writing. There are ways to improve your own writing by reading (and thinking about) this book, but they're more in the realm of philosophical ideas. An example: Baxter thinks that this culture's recent passive approach to responsibility ("mistakes were made" a la Richard Nixon) has influenced its fiction as well. We don't have characters any more who do bad things because they feel like doing them, because they give in to their baser instincts or because they have characteristics that make them do them, like jealousy, meanness, etc. This has led to there being no real antagonists in fiction and has made fiction less and less profound. See for yourself if you agree with the ideas he puts forth in this collection, but I thought they were very valuable. Also, he wrote these essays originally to be delivered as lectures at Warren Wilson College.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Felicity

    Not a writing craft book in the literal sense, this is a collection of craft talks. Mostly they center on problems in or with contemporary fiction, which is not as dour or negative as it sounds; rather, it presents the challenge and promise of rules and habits engrained in writers and writing culture. It is often funny, beautiful, and/or thought-provoking. It is, in fact, more or less the perfect book for trying to "find the rules, break the rules." Also, it's painfully quotable. I used around Not a writing craft book in the literal sense, this is a collection of craft talks. Mostly they center on problems in or with contemporary fiction, which is not as dour or negative as it sounds; rather, it presents the challenge and promise of rules and habits engrained in writers and writing culture. It is often funny, beautiful, and/or thought-provoking. It is, in fact, more or less the perfect book for trying to "find the rules, break the rules." Also, it's painfully quotable. I used around twenty Book Darts.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Alison

    As fun to read as Bird by Bird is or Stephen King's On Writing, and as much as I love and always return to the wisdom in those two books, Baxter's Burning Down the House is the first writing book I've read that truly stretched my mind (sometimes uncomfortably so) and really forced me to re-evaluate my work. So much of writing is learned by example, but to have what's in the examples broken down very cruelly and clinically was eye-opening, challenging, and life-altering. Not a light read, many of As fun to read as Bird by Bird is or Stephen King's On Writing, and as much as I love and always return to the wisdom in those two books, Baxter's Burning Down the House is the first writing book I've read that truly stretched my mind (sometimes uncomfortably so) and really forced me to re-evaluate my work. So much of writing is learned by example, but to have what's in the examples broken down very cruelly and clinically was eye-opening, challenging, and life-altering. Not a light read, many of the essays I had to read a couple of times to fully understand, but worth the work.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Chance Lee

    As far as books on writing though, this is a good one, because it's more about what fiction is about, not on trying to create it. Moving beyond the hows and into the whys is a way to start thinking about why you're trying to write something. What's the message you are conveying versus the message people get from what you write?

  22. 5 out of 5

    Geoff Wyss

    I found myself arguing with Baxter through most of the first essay, but it was a fun kind of jousting; after that, the book is pretty consistently brilliant. Baxter seems to have read--and usefully remembered--everything. Illuminating and broad-ranging (and somewhat intimidating), like James Wood, but here from the writer's side of the table.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Laura Kipnis

    "In retrospect, I can say with some certainty that most of my own large-scale insights have turned out to be completely false . They have arrived with a powerful, soul-altering force; and they have all been dead wrong." From the wonderful essay "Against Epiphanies" in Burning Down the House. I totally burned through this book--something spoke directly to me on every other page.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Glenda

    "Must read" essays on fiction and character by one of America's foremost masters of narrative. Baxter's approachable style and direct language makes these essays both a pleasure to read and vividly useful to all writers.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jason

    Highly recommended for students of literature and especially for writers.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    Classic for a reason.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    Baxter's "Dysfunctional Narratives" essay changed the way I read, and write. Every essay in here is a gem, as argument and as essay-artifact.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Megan

    Some of these essays were fun or thought-provoking or useful. Others made me alternately want to fall asleep or just roll my eyes.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Anne

    I picked up this book because on July 1 I started participating in a six-month-long online writing workshop, and this month the directive is, simply, to read—and write, of course. I thought, "Okay, I'll read about writing." I scanned my shelves, and this book jumped out at me. I have enjoyed Charles Baxter's fiction, and his short book The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story (which I might just have to reread), so I figured this book of eleven essays on various aspects of the craft of I picked up this book because on July 1 I started participating in a six-month-long online writing workshop, and this month the directive is, simply, to read—and write, of course. I thought, "Okay, I'll read about writing." I scanned my shelves, and this book jumped out at me. I have enjoyed Charles Baxter's fiction, and his short book The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story (which I might just have to reread), so I figured this book of eleven essays on various aspects of the craft of fiction would be illuminating. Boy, and how. Baxter is amazing! He's super smart, extremely well read, incredibly perceptive, and funny. I feel not only enlightened from having read this book, but enlivened as well. Cheered up! Dare I say, happy! I started out flagging passages I enjoyed (as is my habit), but halfway through I realized that to do the text justice I'd have to flag pretty much every page, sometimes every paragraph, so I broke out the pen and (this is something I typically do not do) started underlining. There's just so much juicy stuff. Of the book, Baxter says in his preface: "We often pretend, these days, that public lying by politicians has no effect on the stories we tell each other, but it does; or that our obsession with data processing has no relevance to violence in movies, but it might. In almost every essay in this book I have tried to set forth a widespread belief or practice—the belief in Hell, for example, or the recent mania for happy endings and insight—as a precondition to the way in which storytellers (and that means almost all of us) come up with narratives and then tell them. Most of the topics arose from questions that seemed to me both social and literary, both obvious and in some sense unanswerable. Why have we come to think that most of our important memories must be traumatic? What has happened, in this century, to the way in which we think about inanimate objects?" What he is taking on, he says, is nothing less than "the storytelling of everyday life." And he does so by means of "the wild claim." As he puts it, "There are a number of wild claims here, an occasional manic swing toward the large statement. Most of them are meant to be playful rather than ponderous, but they were intended to set fire to the house. Gertrude Stein talks about 'the excitement of unsubstantiated generalities.' Yes, exactly." The "generalities" that he takes on are these: dysfunctional narratives ("mistakes were made": the art of taking responsibility for our failures; avoiding the "fiction of finger-pointing"); defamiliarization (juicy, contradictory, paradoxical detail and emotion: the opposite of the obituary write-up; "the way in which we recognize ourselves in an action and simultaneously see someone we don't recognize"); epiphanies (against the therapeutic model); the inner life of objects (the estrangement, or solace, of the familiar); counterpointed characterization (parallel visions, as opposed to protagonist-antagonist story lines); rhyming action (dramatic repetition; echo effects); melodrama ("the invisibilities of power"; "the recognition, dramatically, that understanding sometimes fails, articulation fails, and enlightenment fails": the dramatization of villainy); Donald Barthelme (the poetry of inappropriate longings; the yoking of the "virtuosic-articulate with the flat banal"); stillness (as an intensifier, as a mood creator; the importance of wonder); happiness (and the twin problems of innocence and blindness); and double-voicing (saying what one would like to be true as if it were true, even though one knows that it probably isn't). And now I'm going to mine the New York Review of Books for more of Baxter's essays. His approach to the world gives me hope.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    A fascinating collection of essays on the art of fiction, which are fascinating primarily because of Charles Baxter's creative choices of topics: the contemporary lack of character accountability, thanks to Nixon ("Dysfunctional Narratives"); the process of making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar ("On Defamiliarization"); the unbelievability of insight in fiction ("Against Epiphanies"); Ruskin's pathetic fallacy ("Talking Forks"); the uses of comparing and contrasting characters A fascinating collection of essays on the art of fiction, which are fascinating primarily because of Charles Baxter's creative choices of topics: the contemporary lack of character accountability, thanks to Nixon ("Dysfunctional Narratives"); the process of making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar ("On Defamiliarization"); the unbelievability of insight in fiction ("Against Epiphanies"); Ruskin's pathetic fallacy ("Talking Forks"); the uses of comparing and contrasting characters ("Counterpointed Characterization"); the problems with dramatic repetition ("Rhyming Action"); the true meaning--and the joys--of melodrama ("Maps and Legends of Hell"); Donald Barthelme ("The Donald Barthelme Blues"); the power of pausing the action in a story ("Stillness"); how fiction cannot abide happiness ("Regarding Happiness"); and the possible meanings of Sonya's final speech, about God, in Chekov's Uncle Vanya ("Sonya's Last Speech").

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