Sunday, July 20, 2008


defensiveness--a state of being or quality of personality often found in fiction writers who read their work aloud at workshops, writers conferences, and public readings emblematic of an author's need to explain or justify, particularly in the face of misinterpretation, misunderstanding, or the inability of the reader/hearer to accept material as plausible or, indeed, to understand the material at all. An often unnecessary footnote-as-text or explanation used to justify a behavioral or moral position of the author and/or one or more of the characters.

Defensiveness has its etiology with the author's response to criticism, is often introduced with the assurance that "It really happened that way," which becomes a preface to a longer explanation. Defensiveness may be seen as the literary equivalent of a youngster, caught in a fib or lie, extending the trope with even more extensive and impassioned justification; it is The dog ate my homework, writ large to the point where the dog morphs from a Chihuahua to a St. Bernard and the homework was the first draft of a novel.

The presence of defensiveness in an author or in text is of itself a good argument for the position that less is more. The best approach for explaining or inserting behavior attributions: Let the characters do it. Let Bill tell us that Fred is unreliable. Doing so is a twofer in that the reader learns Bill's opinion instead of the author's opinion, and in the bargain, the reader learns that Bill is judgmental (and to what degree he is so).

Being assured by an author that an implausible trait or event happened in real life and the author was there to witness/overhear it carries about as much weight as a politician's campaign promise. The author's defensiveness on this point opens the door for the mischievous reader to ask the author, "Are you willing to put that in writing?" Fictional events are accepted by readers in direct proportion to the author's ability to write about them with conviction as opposed to with descriptive panache. In his remarkable novel, Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon asks the reader to believe among other things a protagonist driving about with the dead dog of is employer in the trunk of his car, of the protagonist being the only Caucasian present at a Passover Seder, rendered in flawless Hebrew by a group of Koreans.

Beginning writers and sometimes intermediate-level writers are so defensive about having included all the elements they believe to be necessary to float an effective story that they resort to enumerating all the things they did well, as though that behavior did not go without saying.

An effective approach to removing defensiveness from one's posture is to believe at all times what the characters are saying and doing, even if the characters are not at the moment telling the truth. Keep in mind the image of Falstaff being teased by Prince Hal, of young boys being challenged by their parents or supervisors. A story is not a court of law or a debate; you cannot argue your way to a favorable reception, but you can evoke your way. And the beginning of the path to evocation is through the strategic use of details--the very ones that impress you.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I recall that the single biggest thing I struggled with in workshops while in grad school was response in them. What to say? When is it explication and when is it defense? Where's the line?

Specifically, I remember one workshop when, after reading a chapter of my novel to the class, one colleague noted that a heavily sedated character seemed to have little reaction to what was going on (well, yes, precisely) and another thought that said character should get shot in the leg instead of the arm.

So, yeah, it's tough to know when to respond, if at all. Because sometimes, as a writer, you want to get past a superficial comment to really talk about the story, and what's working, and what may not. The location of a bullet wound is, arguably, less important than the effects of one.