Graywolf reissues one of its most successful essay collections with two new essays and a new foreword by Charles Baxter
As much a rumination on the state of literature as a technical manual for aspiring writers, Burning Down the House has been enjoyed by readers and taught in classrooms for more than a decade. Readers are rewarded with thoughtful analysis, humorous one-liners, and plenty of brushfires that continue burning long after the book is closed.
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About 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.
Date of Birth:May 13, 1947
Place of Birth:Minneapolis, Minnesota
Education:B. A., Macalester College, 1969; Ph.D., State University of New York at Buffalo, 1974
Read an Excerpt
Burning Down the HouseEssays on Fiction
By Charles Baxter
Graywolf PressCopyright © 1997 Charles Baxter
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFrom "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.
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Table of Contents
Preface Dysfunctional Narratives, or: "Mistakes Were Made"
On Defamiliarization Against Epiphanies Taling Forks: Fiction and the Inner Life of Objects Counterpointed Characterization Rhyming Action Maps and Legends of Hell: Notes on Melodrama The Donald Barthelme Blues Stillness
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Such a thoughtful examination of what is good writing.