Research in fiction writing: The Art of Subtext

After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research, 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 The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter.

If you’re keeping track, you know that this is the third book by Charles Baxter (after Burning Down the House, which he wrote, and Bringing the Devil to His Knees, which he edited) that made my list of top academic writing books. It’s also the second from “The Art of” series, after The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber. This book has a lot in common with those others—Baxter even draws from many of the same examples he used in Burning Down the House and that Silber used in The Art of Time.(1) So even though this is a topic that’s often neglected in books on writing, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot to say here that’s new.

What I will say is that while I was reading The Art of Subtext, I was also reading (Re)writing Craft by Tim Mayers, who uses Burning Down the House as an example of what he calls “craft criticism.” My understanding is that craft criticism is focused less on exploring the themes of a work than it is on understanding how a writer produces a particular effect in their work. A piece of craft criticism isn’t meant to be a “how-to,” per se, since it’s not interested in helping aspiring writers learn how to reproduce the same effect in their own work. Instead, it’s an examination of what’s already on the page. The Art of Subtext is clearly an example of that, as are many of the other academic writing books I’ve read so far.

In Re(writing) Craft, Mayers has a lot to say about the assumption that creative writing can’t be taught because it is the realm of the gifted few and how craft criticism both combats and reinforces that idea. Craft criticism shows that the work of literary geniuses can be analyzed and understood from a technical perspective but doesn’t go so far as to say that the effects they create can be reproduced, hence the lack of how-to.

Which makes me wonder what the use of these books is, pedagogically speaking. There must be some, otherwise they wouldn’t be included in the collections of so many academic libraries (which build their collections based on curricular and research needs). My first thought when I started reading these craft criticism-type books is that they would probably be more useful in a literature class than a writing class. Like if you were writing an essay about The Great Gatsby, Baxter’s exploration about Fitzgerald’s use of subtext (or lack thereof) and Silber’s exploration about the use of time in that book could be useful. But are they that useful to an aspiring writer? Like I said, craft criticism looks at what already exists on the page but doesn’t talk about how or why another writer might try to imitate the techniques being used.

Then again, it’s become clear in the readings I’ve done on creative writing pedagogy so far that creative writing programs don’t see teaching aspiring writers how to write as their main goal. Instead, they want to teach students (especially at the undergraduate level) how to understand Great Literature from a writerly perspective. So obviously craft criticism fits right into that.

How-to books, meanwhile, get relegated to the self-help section.(2) Baxter actually talks about this a little in The Art of Subtext. He seemed to think it wasn’t an entirely comfortable fit and while I agree, it struck me that one of the main differences between books like his and books like the ones you find in that how-to section is that authors like him believe that the point of writing is to produce Great Art while the ones in the how-to section focus more on creative expression (and getting published).

Understanding this also helps to explain many of these authors’ insistence that producing Great Literature is the only valid goal of any writer and why they’re so disdainful of any other type of writing, especially any form that they consider “commercial.” Baxter himself takes time out of his discussion on subtext to analyze the typical reading choices of people on airplanes: Tom Clancy for men and Danielle Steele for women. I have no idea when this essay was written (the book was published in 2008), but these examples strike me as both sexist and dated. Setting that aside, though, Baxter’s overall point is that books like those by Clancy and Steele ask nothing of the reader’s imagination because they spell everything out—in other words, they lack subtext.(3) Therefore they are not and never could be Great Literature.

This actually reminds me of a piece of advice I’ve seen come up a lot in how-to writing books, which is that you should never say what a character is feeling. Instead, you should only ever imply it. Like in a writing exercise where you write two descriptions of the same room: one where the character is happy to be in the room and another where they’re afraid. But you can never actually say that one character is happy and one is afraid, it should just be understood through their perceptions of the room around them.

This is a useful exercise but as writing advice it borders on parody. I mean, yeah, the overall point that you should show and not tell is well-taken but if you followed it all the time, it seems like you’d spend all your time writing around the thing you want to say rather than ever actually saying it.Who wants to read that? (Craft critics, probably.)

Anyway. It seems no piece of craft criticism is complete without taking some sort of potshot at the books people actually like to read but at this point, that’s to be expected. And at this point no blog post on an academic writing book that I write would be complete without me complaining about the cheap potshots these writers take at non-literary fiction.

But at this point, that’s to be expected.


  1. If you played a drinking game for how often The Great Gatsby, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, Chekhov, and Nabokov come up in the ten or so books I’ve read so far, you would die of alcohol poisoning before you got through half the list. Seriously.
  2. In The Elephants Teach, D.G. Myers traces the history of “how-to” writing books, which began to appear in the middle of the twentieth century. In doing so, he says that, “Then as now such books were primarily women’s books” (p. 142). Ouch.
  3. Which begs the question: Has Baxter ever read a Danielle Steele novel? Or any other romance novel? I just want to know how he knows that these books lack subtext. He talks about Clancy pretty knowledgeably and clearly has firsthand knowledge of his books. But something tells me he doesn’t have the same firsthand knowledge of romance novels, which makes his use of them as an example all the more annoying, even if you agree with his overall point.

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