cover image The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot

The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot

Charles Baxter. Graywolf Press, $12 (179pp) ISBN 978-1-55597-473-2

Though there are passages where this slim, college-lecture-style volume turns facile or tiresome, novelist Baxter's analysis of ""the implied, the half-visible, and the unspoken"" in literature is saved from irrelevance by a keen sense of pacing and a healthy dose of self-awareness (after confidently zooming through seminal works by Herman Melville, John Cheever, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Baxter confesses, ""I feel that ... I am on the verge of what Walt Whitman calls 'a usual mistake.' I don't wish to simplify what is actually intricate""). Indeed, as the brief chapters of this little book build on each other, Baxter's observations-which initially seem more like interesting rhetorical devices than substantive arguments-gain clarity and momentum, and the accumulation of anecdotal asides about writers' workshops and former students turn them from annoying interjections into helpful indicators of Baxter's relationship with literature. Many of the issues raised in this volume are as old as the study of literature itself, but Baxter's ability to ask unusual and incisive questions of familiar topics (Why is the volatility of Dostoyevsky's characters so unpleasant? Why is it so difficult-and yet so vital-to describe facial features?) makes this little volume worthwhile for the engaged student of literature.