Charles Baxter, author of the 2007 self-help book The Art of Subtext, and I got off to an unnecessarily bad start on page seven. On that page, the opener to an otherwise fine chapter on staging, Baxter name-dropped Bernardo Atxaga's Okabakoak, a book that not only have I not read but, by Baxter's admission, would likely not be able to find.
“Written originally in the Basque language and published in 1988, then translated into Spanish by the author and subsequently translated from its Spanish version into English by Margaret Jull Acosta and published in this country by Pantheon in 1992, it was yanked out of print a few years later.” (Baxter, The Art of Subtext, pages 7-8)
I found it ironic that a man with 175 pages to relate about “The Art,” would start his book in such a way that the subtext would lead me to believe he was a preening snob. In the first paragraph alone, Baxter not only informed the reader he was the better-read man, he mentioned he'd learned of Atxaga's book while drinking wine in a Barcelona restaurant and carried a wine-stained slip of paper bearing the book's title in his wallet for many months after.
I began reading Baxter's little book on a cold night in Montreal, after a day spent sampling the city's offerings of poutine and craft-beer. We'd plans for the next night, New Years Eve, in a French-speaking cafe called the Divan Orange. We would eat borscht and sausages while seeing 2011 out with Roma Carnival, a Balkan band popular among the locals. But the night I took on Baxter, we pulled the covers up early, and I read.
And I promptly fell asleep.
I tried again on Jan. 1, with similar results. Same deal on Jan. 2, etc. It got to the point where I nightly told my wife I was going to take my “sleeping pages.” I brought the book to my MFA residency, sure the power of the Enchanted Forest would create some creative synergy. It did not.
However, slowly and surely, night by night, I crept my way through Baxter's 175 pages and came to appreciate many of them. His examples of subtext done well were illuminating. I was particularly interested in Baxter's explanation of hyperdetailing: in effect, showing the thumb so clearly the whole subtextual hand can be seen. There's good stuff in The Art of Subtext, but woe betide the pilgrim who tries to read it through in a single sitting. It's more like the farmer's almanac, picked up here and there for a bit of advice: perfect bathroom reading.
It seems to me that subtext, like symbolism, is something the writer does not create so much as discover, enhancing and polishing the find through pass after pass of revision. The bones of subtext are rarely put down on purpose. I'm thinking of a short story I wrote in November about a young man who takes a summer job in the Maine blueberry fields. As always, I wrote in two minds, my technical brain taking care of grammar, syntax, and moving my fingers on the keys, while my subconscious mind put down the layers of the story. It took a workshop group to point out that I'd created subtext, revealing how alike the young man and his absentee father were, in spite of their dislike of each other. In subsequent drafts, now that I can see the bones with my technical mind, I'll be enhancing those similarities.
In art, particularly in sculpture, there's a device called negative space. It's the part of the canvas the artist does not paint on, the absence of stone around a statue's curve. Negative space defines what's there, gives it shape. That's how I see subtext; it's the Everything Else behind each paragraph in a story, running between each line of text and in the space inside the indentations. It glows from the page, making silhouettes of the letters and words, casting their shadows into the readers' eyes.
As Baxter writes, “Each page is silent until the reader's imagination revives it, adding tonal shifts, exclamation points, underlinings, over- and undertones. Without salt the rice is tasteless. (Baxter, The Art of Subtext, page 94.)
Subtext is what you leave out, but leave room to see. I think it's time for a few more “sleeping pages.”