Some Questions About Empathy and Reading

First Questions: The Limits of Empathy

I taught two creative writing courses as a graduate student. My undergraduates wanted answers and rules, and instead I offered them the idea that writing is a conversation with variety and breadth—with expectations instead of rules. We read Tom Bissell, Samuel Delany, Lydia Yuknavitch, MFK Fisher, Natasha Trethewey, Yusef Komunyakaa, Sherman Alexie, Lydia Davis. We read “difficult” pieces and “easy” pieces, and we talked about them. How were these pieces different from each other? What were the authors doing? What techniques could we, as writers, take from them?

No matter how well-planned my questions, our discussions always ran aground on like and dislike. What was the author doing? They didn’t know, but they knew they didn’t like it, and that’s all they had to say about it. Sometimes we maneuvered past that sandbar only for their dislike (or like, but more often their dislike) to surge up through the waves and ground our boat again. In the middle of one discussion, a student confessed that he stopped after a few pages of the assigned memoir excerpt. “I don’t like to read about rich people,” he said. As a student who always did the reading whether I liked a book or not, I was flabbergasted. I stumbled through a speech about how whether he liked to read about rich people or not wasn’t the point. It was about discovery, experience, and learning to be better writers (and maybe better people) by studying what others have written, no matter what they wrote about.

Oh, idealism.


Truthfully, though, I knew what that student meant about rich people. I once wrote in a draft of an essay that “I was fatigued by stories of white men.” I was—and am—tired of encountering white men’s stories everywhere I turn, whether I seek them out or not. Not that I don’t read (some of) them. But books about white men are not among those that I will read simply for the experience of entering a mind not my own. When I read a book about white men, there has to be something else at work: it needs to be largely different from other books about white men. The structure, maybe. The written word. The setting. The way it plays with reality and fantasy. Or maybe the white man is one of many characters and not the focus. I can’t read everything, so I categorize and prioritize, as did my students. No matter how frustrating their priorities were when I had picked the reading they skimmed or skipped, their basic process wasn’t that different from my own.

As frustrating as those sandbars of like and dislike were at the time, I don’t regret the conversations we didn’t have about skills and techniques. What I regret is not really listening to the student who didn’t want to read about rich people and taking that opportunity to ask what we choose not to read and why. What are we rejecting, for good or ill? Last year, Roxane Gay wrote a tumblr post, “What Empathy Is,” in which she considered the place of empathy in various public events, including the reporting of the Steubenville rapes, and also empathy’s place in creative writing. She wrote, “[w]hat we often forget to teach though is empathy or at least the notion that empathy should be a consideration when we set about writing and communicating our viewpoints to the world.” This is the conversation that I skipped over in favor of the safety of previously-written questions and planned discussion. I might have asked my students, are our decisions about what we don’t read connected to our experiences of empathy? Are there people we don’t empathize with? Why not? Can we empathize with everyone? Is empathy necessarily limited, exhausted if we spend it too freely, or, like the magic treasure in a fairy tale about generosity, will it grow the more we give it away?

And, if it can be given away, why is it so difficult?

And, if it’s so difficult, how can we teach it?

How can we learn it?


Second Questions: The Case of the Unlikable

Another sandbar in class discussions was the question of what the assigned pieces were about. I encouraged them to think of the piece as creating an experience rather than communicating a message the reader would have to discover or risk “not getting it.” I encouraged them to think about what a piece was doing even if they weren’t sure what it was saying. Nevertheless, they would try to summarize the piece in a pithy statement—a thematic summary, of sorts—and then give up. The more familiar the piece was, the closer to what they had previously read or experienced, the easier it was to summarize, and, it seemed, the more they liked it. At one point a student said he didn’t like a poem because he was sure the author was laughing at him. The poem didn’t fit his earlier experiences of poetry, and so he felt the author was conning him. Even in graduate classes, I saw peers get angry with work because, they said, they didn’t understand it—why would the character do that? Why would that happen in the story? Why would a writer want to write like that?

Of course, in the classroom there is particular pressure on understanding as representing mastery and achievement. In the classroom, “understandable” and “likable” mean “not making my life difficult.” But “understandable” and “likable” float up outside of academia, too. A couple months after Roxane Gay’s essay, Claire Messud was asked if she would want to be friends with one of her characters. In other words, was her character likable? She rejected the question outright, saying, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.” At the time of the interview, there was a flurry of discussion about the expectations placed on female characters (and authors) to be likable as compared to male characters (and authors). In one such piece, Maria Konnikova, writing for The Atlantic, ably summarized the pernicious judgments against women when they are seen as angry or assertive. She then argued that perhaps the best method to address the way gender functions in literature would be to discuss the same issues without focusing on gender at all. Should we be arguing about whether readers are more likely to find female characters unlikable? Or should we be arguing about whether “likability” is even a reason to read in the first place?

The danger here is in how quickly we veer towards judging people for how they read, telling them they’re reading the wrong books for the wrong reasons. That kind of judgment is in itself a failure of imagination, a failure of empathy. But criticizing a character or a book for being unlikable seems like a failure of empathy, too. “Unlikable” and “understandable” both seem like stand-ins for “this character/book doesn’t fit in my world” or “I don’t want this character/book in my world” –which are fine reactions, as long as we know that’s what we’re talking about.

Maybe that’s a start. When someone says, “I didn’t like this book,” the response could be, “What about it didn’t fit in your world?”


Third Questions: In Search of Experience

More recently, Eleanor Catton questioned the concept of elitism in literature, in the process evoking “understandable.” She writes that “[t]he reader who is outraged by being “forced” to look up an unfamiliar word — characterizing the writer as a tyrant, a torturer — is a consumer outraged by inconvenience and false advertising.” That is, a reader who rejects a work because it isn’t understandable, in whole or in part, believes that he or she is a customer and that the book is there to serve him or her. But according to Catton, literature isn’t a service, it’s “pure encounter.” It’s an experience, as I tried to show my students. Which isn’t to say that experiences with the written word can’t be bad as well as good, uncomfortable as well as comfortable. That there won’t be books you, as an individual, just aren’t interested in experiencing, whether for that moment or forever. The difficulty comes with learning how to talk about those experiences in a way that opens up possibility rather than limiting it, that doesn’t assume that our preferences are of the first importance and that our current knowledge is all that a work should demand. That doesn’t end the conversation at “I didn’t like it” or “I didn’t understand it.” Once we learn that—or as we learn it over and over again—we are brought closer to empathy, to a willingness to not only let experiences foreign to our own exist, but also a willingness to leap beyond our own understanding into a glimpse of what others understand.

My thoughts keep returning to how beliefs and routines emanate from schools and universities. What is taught doesn’t predetermine anyone’s beliefs or actions, but we are nonetheless shaped into certain relationships by the questions we are asked, the discussions we are exposed to, and the behaviors modeled for us. We can think our way out of those relationships, but it takes work. As Laura Miller points out in a response to Catton, the passionate anger some readers feel in response to work that is not understandable in the way they expect arises not out of ignorance, but out of a fear of being ignorant or being seen as ignorant. This fear is often rooted for them in a time when “a teacher, a parent, a romantic partner, a friend, a roommate, even a co-worker…made them feel ashamed over a book or genre of books they enjoy or admire.” Shame begets anger, which begets more shame.

This makes me wonder how we could remove shame from the institutions where many do most of their reading. What if there was a university course—a required course, maybe even more than one—where the purpose was simply to read a variety of work? The student would pick his or her own books, as long as the list contained a mix of genres, a mix of author backgrounds, a mix of character backgrounds. The goal wouldn’t be to understand everything read—there are other courses for that. No one would be required to summarize or analyze or even discuss what was read. No one would have to name his or her experiences, good or bad, with any book. All that would matter was the experience itself and that there were many such experiences and that they were all different. In and of itself, this kind of reading won’t teach readers how to move beyond their own likes and dislikes, but it might take that first step of disconnecting shame and anger from reading, leaving readers open to step into a new kind of conversation, one about experiences and worlds, both familiar and not, rather than about likes and dislikes, understanding, and even fatigue.

Oh, idealism.



Works cited: (Roxane Gay) (Claire Messud) (Konnikova) (Eleanor Catton) (Laura Miller)

Image by ginnerobot, licensed under Creative Commons.


Sessily Watt - PhotoSessily Watt recently received an MFA in Fiction from New Mexico State University. She writes a regular column on fantasy and the fantastic for Bookslut and has fiction forthcoming in NonBinary Review.