Friday, May 9, 2008

Unthinkable Thoughts

I'm just emerged from that strange, muffled space known as a migraine. Books, catalogs, and newsletters are flowing in here from Aqueduct's printers, about more of which soon, when we've got our ducks better organized. But in the meantime, a note about a book Jeff VanderMeer recently recommended, Charles Baxter's The Art of Subtext, published by the always excellent Graywolf Press of St. Paul, Minnesota. I enjoyed reading this book, though I think his previous book of criticism, Burning Down the House, gave me more to think about. It's prose style is pleasing-- seemingly effortless, and wonderfully lucid. The categorization "writing" provided on the back by the publisher for the use of booksellers, though, is inapt. It is actually a book about reading. This sort of analysis of reading can, I believe, help writers indirectly, for I am utterly convinced that perceptive, skillful reading is of immeasurable help to writers in learning their craft (which ambitious writers never stop doing). But this is really a book for readers interested in heightening their consciousness of what makes fiction effective. It should, really, be classified as "literary criticism."

To give you a taste, I'll quote one of my favorite passages:

Although we live in a post-Freudian, post-humanist, postmodern, post-everything age, there are still plenty of unthinkable thoughts around, and in the Chekhov tradition they serve as the hard core of narratives. An unthinkable thought is not one that hasn't occurred to somebody, nor is it a thought that someone considers to be wrong. An unthinkable thought threatens a person's entire existence and is therefore subversive and consequently can be thought of and has been thought of, but has been pushed out of the mind's currency and subsumed into its margins where it festers. Dark nights of the soul are lit by inconceivable ideas. Any story may draw its source of power from an unthinkable thought.

This passage is by way of discussing the powerful subtext (of that unthinkable thought) driving a scene in a story by J.F. Powers. All in all, an enjoyable read. I heartily add my recommendation to Jeff's.

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