For most of my childhood, I wasn’t much of a reader. One book that changed that was The World According to Garp. Another was 1984. Tweenage memories can be fuzzy, of course, but I’m pretty certain that I didn’t find any of the characters in either of those books “relatable”; if anything, feminist nurses and flatulence-obsessed novelists and citizens under the bootheel of totalitarianism were deeply alien. And if these books fired up any sense of “empathy” in me, it wasn’t so much for the characters but for their language, their humor or seriousness, the slant way their authors looked at the world.
Those reading experiences may why I get a little cranky when yet another study makes the rounds saying reading fiction makes us more empathetic or something. Human relationships are human relationships, and it’s never been clear to me why reading fiction, as much as I love it, would be more meaningful on the level of “empathy” than, say, talking to people. Or why I should read a novel because I’m hunting for strangers to spend eight hours to empathize with. In the real world, that’s called stalking.
All of which is to say I was pleased to read Namwali Serpell’s essay “The Banality of Empathy” in the New York Review of Books, from the headline on down. (Serpell has a fat, twisty, ambitious debut novel, The Old Drift out later this month; more anon.) Serpell has not come to debunk the neuroscientists; rather, she wants to rethink the notion of literary “empathy,” if it exists, as the most meaningful way to read a story, or even a good thing. After all, she argues, what is empathy good for? Empathy isn’t the same thing as moral action; seeing something happening to another person isn’t the same thing as actually doing something about it. “If witnessing suffering firsthand doesn’t necessarily spark good deeds, why do we think art about suffering will?” she writes.
Of course, not all art is about suffering, and not all novels are activist novels that try to leverage our empathy to move us into action. (Thank goodness; most such novels are pretty badly written.) But even if the novel operates at a lower boil, Serpell argues, reading for empathy can be a narrow, sanctimonious way to read. “The empathy model of art can bleed too easily into the relishing of suffering by those who are safe from it,” she writes. “It’s a gateway drug to white saviorism, with its familiar blend of propaganda, pornography, and paternalism. It’s an emotional palliative that distracts us from real inequities, on the page and on screen, to say nothing of our actual lives. And it has imposed upon readers and viewers the idea that they can and ought to use art to inhabit others, especially the marginalized.” Not everybody reads that way. But I’ve heard enough chatter from people using a novel to do a victory lap for their own bien pensant politics to know that Serpell isn’t wrong.
This is a tricky business, though. There’s a fine line between the typically affluent reader of contemporary fiction treating a novel as ruin porn of the marginalized and satisfying one’s respectable urge to bear witness to the world and understand it better. Serpell bridges that gap by borrowing a phrase from Hannah Arendt: “one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.” In such a state, Serpell writes, “there is no ‘assimilation’ of self and other. Rather, you make an active, imaginative effort to travel outside of your circumstances and to stay a while, where you’re welcome.”
Which is to say that reading is a form of tourism. That’s not a bad thing! It’s only bad if your tourism is of the bus-ride variety, or if you assume because you’ve been to the Washington Monument, you’ve been to Washington, D.C. And if reading is tourism, it’s also a tourism of ideas and language, not just another’s (or an Other’s) feelings. The kind of distance Serpell is asking for is a respectful one, where we’re reading less to appropriate than to understand. And that can involve not just the characters but the author, too---structural decisions, word choices, style, form, and so on. Empathy? Sometimes a novel stokes that, but sometimes—often, even—-it’s more meaningful and legitimate outside of a book.
What I’m Reading
Benjamin Taylor delivers a remembrance of Philip Roth, spotlighting his sense of humor while putting in a good word for his final novel, Nemesis. Nikil Saval considers the complicated legacy of the Bauhaus. Lidija Haas celebrates Rachel Ingalls’ eerie domestic fiction. Five Arizona writers consider 40 great works of literature from and about the state, which alerted me to the fact that Krazy Kat was inspired by George Herriman’s trips to the northern reaches of the state. Maris Kreizman recalls the bookish-bad-boy appeal of the late Luke Perry. (Lest that last link seems a bit off-brand, my first sense that writing criticism could be interesting and fun and actually read by other people came from my writing a “Beverly Hills, 90210” recap column for my college paper. Online evidence of my turn at the helm of “90210 Watch” doesn’t exist, which is probably for the best; all that’s left are some lame quotes I gave to a Chicago Tribune reporter about the gig.)
What I’m Writing
For USA Today, I reviewed Etaf Rum’s debut novel, A Woman Is No Man, about the history of domestic violence in one Arab-American family. “Rum delays multiple revelations for dramatic effect, and in the meantime, the novel can feel overstuffed with Fareeda’s repeated lecturing to both Isra and Deya about serving husbands and having sons. But the delaying is also purposeful, evoking the anxiety many families suffer about speaking up about domestic abuse, and the layers of lies and changing the subject that enable and perpetuate ‘the chain of shame passed from one woman to the next.’”
I screwed up the name of the author of the excellent Lou Reed essay I linked to in last week’s newsletter; it’s Elizabeth Nelson. Happily, my error helped tip me to Nelson’s band, the Paranoid Style, a pleasantly shambolic outfit that’s here for you if you admire Rilo Kiley---or, I suppose, the video for Journey’s “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)”:
Thanks for reading. No newsletter next week; I’ll be in New York doing my bit to judge the NBCC awards. In the meantime, tell me what you found most relatable in this newsletter: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m on Twitter. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.