Surviving The Workshop: Gauging Reactions

I recently had workshopped a piece that I had intended to be the ending chapter of the first arc in my novel. In it, the protagonist Mark ends up talking to a young fellow just a year or two younger than he is. The character’s name is Giovanni, and he is largely a mouthpiece for Eliot Rodger, may he rest in peace. Giovanni was going to see an escort. When his appointment was canceled, Mark chanced upon the young man and they began to have a conversation.

I painted Giovanni as a good-looking wealthy young man who was still a virgin at the age of twenty-one. I did this for several reasons, one of which was that my strategy was to eliminate any confounding factors in his inability to get into a relationship with a woman. If someone is ugly, fat, not well-groomed, or lacks in healthy hygienic habits, the reason for his loneliness is all too easy to arrive at. But if he is none of those, then one should begin to question: why is this young man alone and lonely?

Instead, many of my readers simply became confused. One reader couldn’t get past the fact that Giovanni was still a virgin, commenting, “He is good-looking, rich, why can’t he get laid?” I feel that this reaction is far more telling about his own assumptions about the world than it is a reflection of some quality of my novel. The same reader found it confusing that the escort would turn him down as a client. “He is young, good-looking, why not sleep with him?” he repeated. Furthermore, many people had a deeply negative reaction to the character just the same as many people had the same kind of reaction to Eliot Rodger’s YouTube videos.

At first, my confidence was quite shaken. I was trying my very best to get people to question the impacts of bad sexual decision making, and the role of young women in shaping the behavior of young men. Yet, everyone was focusing on how disturbed Giovanni seemed. The conversation shifted to the topic of date rape and other topics that were as unsavory as unexpected. So naturally, I was beginning to question whether this was the right decision to make about my novel; should I keep Giovanni in? Should I soften his character and make him less disagreeable? 

A week of pondering and I came to an important realization. My readers’ reactions were a sign that I was challenging their reality.

You see, my character Giovanni was met with such aggressive rejection because they defied the little pictures of reality that my readers had drawn for themselves in their mind. As a result of this contention of their reality, they reacted defensively. 

To one reader, it didn’t make any sense that a handsome rich young man could not get laid; in all likelihood, it is because he views wealth and good looks as the solution to all of life’s problems. He holds these views because he has not had much intimate contact with anyone with wealth, nor has he had the chance to probe the mind of the handsome. To another reader, Giovanni was an “overprivileged sobbing kid” who apparently deserved little of his sympathy. His reaction is probably due to a hard working-class upbringing. To a few other readers, it didn’t make sense that Mark would sit there listening to Giovanni’s abuse; these readers didn’t catch on to the fact that Mark is written as an everyday saintly figure. The entire scene defied the world that my readers knew. And rather than question the assumptions that they held, they attacked the reality I presented. I don’t blame them: when one’s worldview is challenged, it is a harrowing experience that prickles many a defense mechanism. It’s a lot scarier and tougher to examine one’s own experience of life and a lot easier to lash out and call something unrealistic. To be fair, a few readers were level-headed enough to ask questions. And questions are always a good thing. One reader said that she wanted to see more of why Giovanni couldn’t have sex. And to this, I responded silently, “Why don’t you try to figure that out?” 

I say all this to come to this conclusion: in a workshop, a writer must always gauge his or her audience’s reaction and consider their comments very carefully. A writer must neither reject them wholesale nor unquestioningly take each of them as pearls of wisdom. An artist of fiction must hold steadfast to his vision and maintain a stubborn opinion that his vision is more truthful than their glossy imagined reality.