Subtext…On the Surface!

The Keeper of the Snails is reading The Art of Subtext. Check out her posts about it.

The first chapter is called The Art Of Staging. ‘Staging’ according to Baxter is when objects and actions are used to create a pathway to the character’s inner life. It is this aspect of a novel which distinguishes popular genre from the more literary. In popular romances (e.g. a novel by Danielle Steel) the location, material wealth, physical attributes and who is paired off with whom is important. In the popular thriller (e.g. by Tom Clancy) it is the military hardware, and the hierarchy of power that are important. In both the characters are secondary; but in more literary fiction they are central to the plot. In more literary novels the character is shown by what is unsaid – the showing rather than telling – and presumably the more that is shown and the less that is said, the more literary the novel (and subsequently, perhaps, the less it will be read).

Genre novels, he says, shut down imagination and therefore are ideal reading material for the anxious traveller because it reduces the ability to speculate. Literary novels on the other hand promote the imagination, and in order to do this a character who is hyper-vigilant ie fully attentive, has poor understanding and is emotionally bewildered is ideal as a protagonist.


  1. says

    “a character who is hyper-vigilant ie fully attentive, has poor understanding and is emotionally bewildered is ideal as a protagonist.”

    Change that “has poor understanding” to “is smart but inexperienced” and you’ve got a pretty good description of the main viewpoint character in many a C.J. Cherryh novel.

  2. Jeff VanderMeer says

    It’s also interesting, because I think the meaning of “genre” and “literary” in this context isn’t the meaning that’s most commonly used in the field. Which is to say, he’s talking purely about the art of it–I believe he’s saying in his eyes that a “literary” novel of course can be SF/F or whatever–that his meaning of “genre” is something “formulaic” in any mode. At least, that’s how I’m choosing to interpret him.


  3. says

    Jeff, that makes sense, because just from the quoted portion of his argument it sounds like he’s put to much thought into it to be dividing the world of fiction into a simple-minded classification that puts all “literary” writing on one side and “genre’ writing completely on another.

  4. James says

    The genre/literary distinction Baxter makes is the same one I’ve always used. My reading is pretty catholic in terms of subjects and settings; it’s the use of language that I’m looking for in choosing a book.

    As a bookseller, I’ve noticed that I’m not alone in that, either. It seems to me that most of the people who severely restrict their interests to a particular “genre,” be it SF or romance or mystery, are also looking for a simple, expository style. Anything that requires subtextual consideration, even if it fits into that genre, isn’t what they’re looking for.

  5. says

    Yes, I think by ‘genre’ he means the popular type of genre novel which require little effort or imaginative engagement from the reader. I was actually thinking of your work when I wrote that summary, Jeff, because since you use subtext and are therefore literary but your books are classified as genre in the bookshop.

    I wrote that summary, as I write most of the stuff on my blog, mainly for myself. By writing it for a public arena I find it helps me to order my thoughts and makes me learn, and if anyone else comes across it too that’s an added bonus! But I do recommend reading the whole book – it’s fairly short and extremely interesting.

  6. says

    I’d like to thank Clare for writing that and for Jeff posting it here, as that little passage helped me to realize just what it was about a particular book that made me react negatively to it in places. So yeah, thanks! Now I can finish this second review in the next few days without fretting too much.

  7. James says

    Baxter’s work in general is among the best writing advice I’ve run across between covers, along with Peter Turchi’s book and Bruce Rogers’s Word Work, which is a slightly different animal.

  8. Andrew says

    As much as I liked the book, I had to disagree on some parts. What about a new brand of fantasy?

    What about a fantasy story about grand wars and kingdoms, but where the protagonist isn’t perfect? What about a story with a flawed character who has the fate of the world on his shoulders?