Engines Of Empathy Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2017-05-16 12:00:00 No comments

No one is immune to mythologizing or self-mythologizing. The mythologies woven by artists about themselves and their trades are no more immune to being punctured or deflated than any other. Sometimes I think the only people who can let the (hot) air out of such things are other artists, because it's only from inside that a valid and accepted criticism of such things can be launched. Nobody would pay attention to a thing Stephen Hawking said about literature — or, at the very least, they wouldn't think he had as valid a point as, oh, Tibor Fischer.

This is my warmup to saying something that might well get me drummed out of the Creators' Union, but here goes.

One of the current myths about literature and storytelling is that they are engines of empathy — that people who read are more plugged in to the sufferings and delights of others than people who don't. My first critique of this idea is that it's at best a cart-before-horse issue: it's not that reading creates empathy, but that empathy engenders reading. The more inclined you are to know about others, the more ways you're likely to see that out, and reading is a highly convenient way to do that.

My second critique of the idea is that even if you put the cart and horse in the correct order, I'm still skeptical of the idea that cultural products facilitate empathy. If we became all the more appalled by slavery because of Uncle Tom's Cabin (random example), it's not something that happened all at once. A story that enters the public consciousness and attaches itself to a given issue might well help engender an environment in the long term where certain kinds of empathies become more acceptable or go from being unspeakable to not even news.

But the idea that fiction is by itself a magic wand that waves itself over our heads and makes us more attuned to our fellow humans is pure wish-fulfillment. It is an argument for a prescriptive approach to art and creativity, and that is exactly how you turn most people off to ever picking up a book in the first place.

Dale Peck once wrote something to the effect that encoded within every story is a utopian vision that if realized would make the story redundant, unnecessary. He was not, however, advocating for turning that approach to fiction into a formal plan for how to maximize its reach or best leverage its effects. If anything, he was pointing out something about the genesis of a story rather than its reception; people write because there is a vision to be shared, and the sharing of that vision humanizes us a little more, but only if we let it. Trying to formalize it, trying to reify the magic, only makes it dissipate all the more quickly.

I'm no different. Every time I sit down to work on one of my stories, the one hope I have is that they will become someone else's favorite something, or at least have a crack at entering the top ten. But, strangely, I don't hope that because I actually want to see it happen. It's just a direction to shoot in, a way to discipline what I'm doing so that it has a chance of achieving a certain airspeed and escape velocity. It's not really the work itself I want people to fall in love with, or — as I am wont to put it — lie down in and go to sleep in. Some part of me is turned off by that kind of worship.

If I really want anything, it's for people to use whatever I give them as fuel to go and do something at least as good in their own lives, if not better. And it doesn't have to be a book, or even a great legal achievement or a scientific breakthrough. It could just be offering to fold the laundry a little more often. Anything to make things stink a little less.

If that's what fiction-as-an-empathy-machine is supposed to be, then so be it. I also want a pony.

In lieu of a pony, check out my (new!) novel Welcome To The Fold, and showing your support for it by registering at Inkshares and adding the book to your "Follow" list! Failing that, you can always buy one of my existing books, available on Amazon Kindle and in dead-tree format.

Tags: empathy fiction psychology sociology writers writing