Charles Baxter’s Defamiliarization: A Summary

In Burning Down the House, Baxter addresses the issues of stale character and meaning in fiction. Avoidance of overdetermined characters and events is achieved through what he calls defamiliarization. Only when this idea is employed does a piece of fiction become interesting.

To create fictitious people in the same way an elegy is written about the deceased is to create something flat. “Such a recital is all overdetermined. All the arrows point in one direction” (31). A limited scope of the whole of the person is neatly packaged and presented as deemed fit by societal expectations. The result is a staging of what Baxter calls “the show business of every day life” (29). This predictable approach, where characters are created according to form, is what detaches them from memory. They are “overparented” by the author. Characters must be comprised of more than one side. A reader identifies most with interesting details of struggle and failure; otherwise a character has nothing to distinguish him or herself from the norm. As Baxter says, “the difference between fictional art and public rhetoric is that in fiction, the arrows point in all sorts of directions” (32). In essence, the character becomes an identity with which the reader is too familiar.

The way in which an author creates meaning in a story can fall into the same trap. To focus on one “truth” and fit the narrative neatly within the boundaries of that truth is to deny the reader dramatic tension. There is no learning involved. Modernists felt that “truth had gotten stale” (36) and cliche so they broke the rules and shook their audience. After they ran out of rules to break, time passed and what they had produced had also become familiar. As Baxter says, familiarity means security and the “power to predict” (38). In this attempt at newness, what becomes new also becomes old. Additionally, the avant-garde approach of innovation and marginality offers no real solution. To throw out the old for mere novelty simply creates and adds to the confusion avant-garde artists construct. Baxter believes we need an alternative approach and offers the solution of defamiliarization.

Defamiliarization is “a technique for finding a certain kind of detail that resists the fitting of the object into a silhouette, that is, into a ready made symbolization” (42). Viktor Shklovsky calls the silhouette concept algebrization, “the process of turning an event or familiar object into an automatic symbol” (41). This factor which can be plugged in to mean something familiar fails to add interest. Baxter combats this boredom with an idea of Gerard Baxter Hopkins, that “images [become] memorable when some crucial part of their meaning [has] been stripped from them” (41). Mundane, predetermined meaning must be removed from objects and images to add unpredictability. Another form of defamiliarization is misalignment or diversion from a single truth via juxtaposed contradictions of emotion. People often feel many opposing emotional reactions when impacted by a single change in their lives. These combinations represent simultaneous forms of existence within one individual and create an unpredictable outcome. It becomes uncertain which emotion will rise to the surface and influence the next action. Another tool in the arsenal of defamiliarization is point of view. This provides the framework of observation and works best when the narrator doesn’t know what their own journey means. Their position offers a picture that is moderately strange. This speaks to the idea of renormalization, where “moderately strange in the middle of ordinary is the lens for focusing the ordinary. Without it, the ordinary has nothing against which to define itself” (49). Ultimately, defamiliarization is about “not finding ourselves where we expected to be but where we did not expect to be found, and at a moment when our defenses are down” (49).

Works Cited
Baxter, Charles. Burning Down the House. Saint Paul: Graywolf Press, 1997.