Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on Burning Down the House

After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research in that process, I’ve now shifted my focus to a set of more “academic” books that are specifically about fiction writing. I say “academic” because, of all of the books on a very long list of recommended creative writing books that I found, these are the ones that are a) about fiction writing specifically and b) owned by the libraries at 20 institutions with highly respected creative writing programs at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Today I’m taking a look at Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter. 

Early on in reading this book, I excitedly wrote down a quote from it and only afterward realized that I’d probably misunderstood what I was reading. The quote had something to do with how fiction shouldn’t be treated as an instruction manual. What I realized as I was copying it down was that Baxter seemed to mean that readers shouldn’t use fiction as instruction manuals for how to live their lives (and therefore writers shouldn’t write that way, I guess). What I thought it meant was that writers shouldn’t have to use “great fiction” or other works as some kind or roadmap for their own craft. After reading so many books that treat great literary works this way, I was excited to see someone challenge that notion.

Which is to say, I think Baxter is challenging that notion, to an extent, just not in quite the way I thought. He’s poking at some of the more common literary devices like epiphanies and asking questions about how they’re used in fiction and whether they can be effective or not. He uses examples from “great” literature to think through some of these ideas but he holds them up for critique and deconstruction as often as he holds them up for admiration. Like, just because Chekhov got away with stuff doesn’t mean that everyone has to try getting away with those same things. And maybe Chekhov didn’t get away with it as well as everyone thinks he did.

This is a lot different from something like Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, which spends a lot of time telling amateur writers that they should do the things Great Writers do but also that they don’t have enough innate talent to actually pull any of those things off (otherwise they would be Great Writers instead of amateurs). Baxter seems to be questioning whether what Great Writers do is even that great or if we’ve just conferred greatness on what are actually just accidents. Or if we find ways to explain them away so that we can keep telling ourselves these works are great.

This is also a lot different from something like Reading Like a Writer, which really does hold up Great Works as instruction manuals for what writers should be doing if they hope to ever be any good. This has always interested me because while reading in order to learn craft is not the type of research I had in mind when I started pursuing this topic, it comes up a lot in the books I’ve read—much more often than “actual” research. Research on creative information seeking is relatively rare, but the idea that artists seek information in order to improve their craft and technique is very much in line with what studies on the topic have found.

I happened to be reading Baxter’s book at the same I was reading On the Teaching of Creative Writing for a different but related project. This book is a series of questions about creative writing pedagogy as answered by Wallace Stegner. One of the questions has to do with whether students should be taught to read like writers. Stegner’s answer is surprising. He basically says that you shouldn’t just give students a list of great books to read and hope they’ll absorb ideas about craft while reading them. Instead, you should give them books to read based on the shortcomings you see in their work. So a student who has trouble with point of view would be assigned books in which point of view is used in interesting or effective ways. A student who has trouble with description would read books with great use of description. This way, they’re reading in order to solve a specific problem rather than trying to take everything in all at once.

I really like this idea, especially since it’s just as applicable to genre as it is to literary works. I mean, I can see why it’s probably not used in actual creative writing programs—assigning each student their own curriculum would be onerous for the professor and would also make assessment a problem. But it makes a certain amount of sense.

I thought about that a lot as I read Burning Down the House. I still kind of wish my first impression of that quote about fiction and instruction manuals had been the right one but even if it’s not he’s still being pretty provocative in holding up so many great works and great authors for examination and deconstruction rather than blind worship. As the blurb on the back of the book from The New York Times Book Review says, “Burning Down the House may spur both readers and writers first to a recognition of guilty complicity and then to constructive thought.” That’s a much different approach from any other writing book I’ve read so far.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, here are the stats on what I’ve read so far as far as whether they discuss the role of research in fiction writing:

  • Positive result: 3 (From Where You Dream, The Art of Time in Fiction, The Secret Miracle)
  • Negative result: 2 (The Way of the Writer, Burning Down the House)

That’s not great, but a 40% positive result is better than what I got with the popular creative writing books I read, only three of which (out of 10) talk about research. It’s still early days yet, but even though I haven’t found a lot, what I have found so far is much more substantial than what I thought I was going to get when I started, so that’s definitely cause for hope.

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