Promoting Literary Empathy

I would like to promote something and it is not one of my stories, or a weight-loss program, or a political campaign.  I would like to promote a change of attitude in the literary world.  I would like to ask for writers, readers, editors and reviewers to work on developing what I call “literary empathy”.

Empathy is an emotional and psychological term meaning an identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, motives, and choices. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s place, even if that person is very different from you, and imagine what it is like to be them, to like what they like and hate what they hate.

I had always assumed that empathy was a prerequisite for good writing. After all, the act of writing requires becoming your characters.  It demands the ability to become someone else, many someone else’s, in fact, and to create empathy for those characters in your reader.  Likewise, being a good reader requires the same skills.  When we read we become someone else, and we must imagine who they are and why they do what they do.

But recently I’ve begun to doubt the existence of empathy, especially in the world of literature.

First, I was on a writer’s forum and someone suggested that Chick Lit should be banned from publication. Now, perhaps this was a joke.  It was stated by a male, and he might have thought it was funny.  My response was to ask “Why would we ban anything that a certain population of the world likes to read?”  He didn’t respond, but I think I know the answer.  He thinks Chick Lit should be banned because he doesn’t like it.

Now, interestingly enough, I’m not a particularly big fan of Chick Lit.  I did read Bridgett Jones’ Diary and enjoyed it mildly.  However, despite not liking Chick Lit myself, I can understand that there are people who do like it, and I can imagine why, and I don’t begrudge them their preferences.  I certainly don’t imagine that only the things I personally like are good or should exist.

For example, I don’t like writing or reading horror. I prefer my fiction to involve less blood and psychopaths.  However, I know people who like horror, who write horror, and I can understand the appeal, even though it doesn’t appeal to me.  I don’t think horror should be banned.  I even respect those who can write it and read it.

The second clue I had to this lack of literary empathy was a plea on a reviewer’s website.  In SFReader reviewer guidelines they have a special section asking writers to “try to think of the type of reader who might like the book even if you didn’t.  Even though I want you to take a stance on whether or not YOU liked it, I still want you to consider other readers who might. You might want to say thing like ‘Although it wasn’t quite my cuppa, this book would have definite appeal to Heinlein fans.'”

Here again is the idea that we need to be able to empathize with a larger population than ourselves.  What we like is not the end all and the be all. What we hate is not inherently evil just because we dislike it. I don’t think it is helpful or necessary to begrudge or belittle other people’s preferences in literature, or to designate certain genres as unworthy of publication.  If someone wants to buy it, it is worthy of publication.

Let me be clear.  I don’t mean that we shouldn’t make judgments about quality of craft, that we shouldn’t say we think one thing is better than another.  But let’s be very honest that literature, like all art, is very subjective.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  What resonates with one person will fall flat for another.

And that is exactly why we need to promote various forms, modes and genres, so we can all have what we need and enjoy.

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Ripley Patton lives in a 22-foot camper in the woods of Southern Illinois with a cat named Lemmy. Her two young adult children, a daughter and a son, are her favorite people. When Ripley's not out exploring nature and getting her hands dirty, she's usually reading or writing a book.

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