Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction


"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
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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 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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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Taking arms against "dysfunctional narratives" and "the mass production of insight, in fiction and elsewhere," novelist and short-story writer Baxter (First Light; Harmony of the World) hopes to restore literature and imagination to their rightful places in the social order. In nine essays, he employs dry wit and impassioned prose to examine some unfortunate fashions of modern fiction. He suggests that the practice of political deniability has inspired in fiction a dulling of both action and character. In Baxter's view, Richard Nixon's phrase Mistakes were made "deprives an action of its poetry," whereas "[w]hen you say, `I fucked up,' the action retains its meaning, its sordid origin, its obscenity, and its poetry." He finds another lamentable convention in the substituting of a moment of insight or revelation for action. While literary epiphanies can be gorgeously effective when executed with discipline and elegance, Baxter notes, in general usage they have become an easy move toward closure and, "not to put too vulgar a point on it, a payoff." In the essay "Against Epiphanies," and others with such titles as "Rhyming Action" and "Talking Forks: Fiction and the Inner Life of Objects," Baxter cites the work of Joyce, Woolf, Flannery O'Connor, Chekhov, Donald Barthelme, William Maxwell and Grace Paley to illustrate his views of how fiction is done best. His views, embracing "wild claims" and "an occasional swing toward the manic," arose, he says, from exchanges with students (he teaches at the University of Michigan) and with fellow writers. They are meant, as his title suggests, to incite response and excitement, but they are bracing rather than incendiary, provocative rather than destructive. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Baxter, a novelist (Shadow Play, LJ 12/92), short story author, self-described ex-poet, and instructor of writing, has revised lectures he originally gave for a MFA program, addressing storytelling concerns dear to his heart. Baxter uses a quote from Richard Nixon as the point of departure in his first essays to explore how "deniability" has crept even into contemporary writing, robbing it of its interest and complexity. Baxter makes a strong case for reviving narratives with "mindful villainy" and an "imaginative grip on the despicable." Elsewhere, Baxter delves into the short fiction of Alice Walker, Flannery O'Connor, and James Joyce to trace shadows of the antagonist and defends the "guilty pleasures" of this "unserious" mode now fallen out of fashion. While Baxter can sometimes sound like a rule-wagging schoolmaster, there is a freshness to his roundabout method of deflating clichs taught at writing programs; his work will appeal to serious writers and readers of fiction.-Amy Boaz, "Library Journal"
Baxter, a novelist and director of the M.F.A. program in writing at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, offers a unique perspective on the reading and writing of contemporary fiction, inviting unexpected connections between gossip and characterization, Puritanism and consumerism, violence and data processing, and Richard Nixon and the trend of dysfunctional narration in modern fiction. No index. Paper edition (unseen), $15.00. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
In nine repackaged essays, novelist and short-story writer Baxter (Believers, p. 76, etc.) scorches such fictional, and social, trends as mandatory epiphanies, preachified characterizations, and the absence of villainy.

To touch on his sore spots about current fiction and "the storytelling of everyday life," Baxter often opens with overtly mundane scenes, such as funeral eulogies, gossipy parties, or the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, before moving on to sometimes slender fictional parallels. A Dow Chemical flack's actual description of the physical side effects of a chemical spill as a "vomiting-type thing" aptly starts off an appreciative essay on Donald Barthelme's humorously fractured and irrational portrayals of the modern world. But more often, Baxter crankily stretches his conceits without producing much tension: Observations about Jimmy Swaggart's resemblance to an abusive father appear in a study of melodrama; and in an exploration of the cults of victimhood and deniability, he cites such disparate examples as Jane Smiley's novel A Thousand Acres and the memoirs of Richard Nixon ("the greatest influence on American fiction for the last twenty years"). His complaints seem to be less with bad writing than with "the postmodern impatient, middle-class Puritan" (whoever that may be) and American culture's expectations of revelations, action, and moralized "human clichés" in contemporary fiction. His generalized social commentary aside, Baxter's aesthetic criticism has some modest insights (e.g., the recurrence of gum-chewing in Lolita). Typically, though, it's pedestrian, and occasionally it's self-serving. When he tries to get additional mileage out of such canonical standards as The Great Gatsby or The Death of Ivan Ilyich, there is little that seems fresh or startling.

Much as he tries to challenge conventional taste, Baxter often gets stuck halfway between his idiosyncratic aesthetics and his narrative dislikes.

From the Publisher
“[The book] is a pleasure to read, and it performs an important function—by mucking around in the problems that plague contemporary fiction, Burning Down the House may spur both readers and writers first to a recognition of guilty complicity and then to constructive thought.” —The New York Times Book Review

“The most pleasurable and instructive book on the craft since John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.” —City Pages

“Baxter displays his characteristic wit and intelligence as he muses about the influence of culture and politics on the art of storytelling.” —Ploughshares

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555972707
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 2/1/1998
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 248
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.51 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles Baxter is the author of ten books, including The Feast of Love, a finalist for the National Book Award, and The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot. He lives in Minneapolis.

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Table of Contents

Dysfunctional Narratives, or: "Mistakes Were Made" 1
On Defamiliarization 27
Against Epiphanies 51
Talking Forks: Fiction and the Inner Life of Objects 79
Counterpointed Characterization 109
Rhyming Action 135
Maps and Legends of Hell: Notes on Melodrama 161
The Donald Barthelme Blues 197
Stillness 219
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First Chapter

Burning Down the House

Essays on Fiction
By Charles Baxter

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 1997 Charles Baxter
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-55597-270-5

Chapter One

From "Dysfunctional Narratives, or: 'Mistakes Were Made'"

Lately I've been possessed of a singularly unhappy idea: The greatest influence on American fiction for the last twenty years may have been the author of RN [Richard Nixon], not in the writing but in the public character. He is the inventor, for our purposes and for our time, of the concept of deniability. Deniability is the almost complete disavowal of intention in relation to bad consequences. A made-up word, it reeks of the landfill-scented landscape of lawyers and litigation and high school. Following Richard Nixon in influence on recent fiction would be two runners-up, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Their administrations put the passive voice, politically, on the rhetorical map. In their efforts to attain deniability on the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran, their administrations managed to achieve considerable notoriety for self-righteousness, public befuddlement about facts, forgetfulness under oath, and constant disavowals of political error and criminality, culminating in the quasi-confessional passive-voice-mode sentence, "Mistakes were made."

Contrast this with Robert E. Lee's statement the third day after the battle of Gettysburg and the calamity of Pickett's Charge: "All this has been my fault," Lee said. "I asked more of men than should have been asked of them."

Lee's sentences have a slightly antique ring. People just don't say such things anymore.

What difference does it make to writers of stories if public figures are denying their responsibility for their own actions? So what if they are, in effect, refusing to tell their own stories accurately? So what if the President of the United States is making himself out to be, of all things, a victim? Well, to make an obvious point, they create a climate in which social narratives are designed to be deliberately incoherent and misleading. Such narratives humiliate the act of storytelling. You can argue that only a coherent narrative can manage to explain public events, and you can reconstruct a story if someone says, "I made a mistake," or "We did that." You can't reconstruct a story - you can't even know what the story is- if everyone is saying, "Mistakes were made." Who made them? Everybody made them and no one did, and it's history anyway, so let's forget about it. Every story is a history, however, and when there is no comprehensible story, there is no history. The past, under these circumstances, becomes an unreadable mess. When we hear words like "deniability," we are in the presence of narrative dysfunction, a phrase employed by the poet C. K. Williams to describe the process by which we lose track of the story of ourselves, the story that tells us who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act.

The spiritual godfather of the contemporary disavowal movement, the author of RN, set the tenor for the times and reflected the times as well in his lifelong denial of responsibility for the Watergate break-in and cover-up. He has claimed that misjudgments were made, although not necessarily by him. Mistakes were made, although they were by no means his own, and the crimes that were committed were only crimes if you define "crime" in a certain way, in the way, for example, that his enemies like to define the word, in a manner that would be unfavorable to him, that would give him, to use a word derived from the Latin, some culpability. It wasn't the law, he claimed. It was all just politics.


Excerpted from Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter Copyright © 1997 by Charles Baxter. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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