Thursday, 3 December 2020

Empathy and literature

Language and content

You want readers to care about your characters don’t you? You want them to feel what the characters feel. If getting readers to cry is your aim there are web pages to help you – see for example "How to make readers cry in six steps". According to Becca Puglisi

  • When readers start to care about the main character, they’re going to be invested in what happens to him. And they’re going to keep reading to make sure everything turns out okay.
  • When readers recognize the character’s emotional state as one they’ve experienced in the past, it creates a sense of shared experience.

She points out that “There are two facets of emotion in fiction: conveying what your character is feeling and evoking emotion in your reader.”. This distinction is worth bearing in mind - however clearly you describe a tragedy, readers might be unmoved. Robert Frost wrote, "no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader" which has some truth. Readers can easily feel manipulated rather than sad when they read tear-jerkers.

A piece of literature depends partly on the power of words and partly the impact of what those words transparently represent. Strong content might suffice to evoke emotion. When Wilfred Owen stated that "The poetry is in the pity" he was expecting readers to respond to the recounted experiences emotionally. Once there's emotion, empathy might develop.

Even when the genre (essay, whodunit, etc) foregrounds the content, some readers prefer to engage with represented people rather than words, I've just finished a detective novel - "The Dark Lake" by Sarah Bailey. Here are 2 goodreads comments about it -

  • Three stars because I did like the story but I probably don't like Gemma enough to want to read anymore about her
  • The female protagonist both broke my heart in ways and had me rooting for her

There's an expectation in more literary work that characters should at least contribute. My latest rejection slip from a literary magazine said "I don't care about these characters yet".

But characters aren't everything. There can be compensations. A review of "The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle" by Stuart Turton admired its ingenuity, then said "The price Turton pays for this is a loss of emotional engagement on the reader’s part. But as an intellectual thriller, the book can’t be faulted, and in the end, it’s the story that triumphs".

Textual factors influencing empathy

Several controllable factors in the text might affect who readers empathise with -

  • Point of view (PoV) - What PoV maximizes empathy? Maybe using the first person will have a greater impact. Perhaps readers identify with the only character they can see inside of. Sometimes readers find it difficult to identify with any specific character when the viewpoint's omniscient.
  • Tense - Which tense is best? Maybe the present is more immediate.
  • Style - Metafiction isn't going to entice readers in. Maybe diary entries will.
  • Shared experience - Will they identify with the characters most like them? The only morally sound character? Will women identify with women? Soldiers with soldiers? The identification needn't be complete. After all, "Watership Down" and "Bambi" move audiences. So does ET's demise. But not HAL's in 2001.
  • Leaving space - In a BBC Radio 3 podcast, Samantha Harvey (quoting George Saunders) suggested that authors should leave gaps in the text so that the reader can enter it, and these gaps should provide enough room for the reader to express themselves - e.g. judge a character, because the author hasn't supplied a judgement.

In light of the above factors is it pointless writing a judgemental, third-person piece in the past tense where your main character’s a gay red-headed paraplegic chessplayer from the Isle of Wight? Such questions can be answered experimentally, a fertile area of research. Papers like "The Relationship Between Empathy and Reading Fiction: Separate Roles for Cognitive and Affective Components" report on some findings, and many experiments have been performed to see whether “I”, “you”, or “s/he” packs the biggest punch. Using EEG and fMRI, researchers have measured effects, sometimes using erotica. I think that the conclusion is that there might be an initial effect when using the 2nd person which is why PR people often use it - "1 in 4 people who smoke more than 20 cigarettes a day die of cancer" is less effective than "Hey, do you smoke more than 20 a day? Come on, be honest. If your answer's yes you've a 1 on 4 chance of dying of cancer". Readers soon get used to this trick though. In novels, other factors matter at least as much.

Online and in books are many tips for writers who want readers to experience immersion, and some more theoretical pieces that also consider immersion in computer games and VR. Here are just a few books and links

The reader and the author

The particularities of both reader and author affect empathical reponses to works.

Readers are often aware that they're susceptable to certain pieces. A poetry review by Julia Webb included the comment "As someone who lost a brother first to mental illness and then to death, this pamphlet spoke to me personally". This awareness might make the reader doubt their judgement of the quality of the piece.

Sometimes it's easier to empathise with the author than a character. The phrase "based on a true story" still has an impact. A celebrity's true story has a greater impact still (see Jade Goody, etc). A poetry collection might encourage empathy with the author rather than any individual persona. Some poetry readers much prefer monographs to multi-author works, and start the book by reading the author bio.

Reading habits affecting empathy

A novel reader is going to spend hours of their lives with the characters in the novel. In "The First Rule of Creating Fictional Characters" it says "Imagine if you went to a party and all of the guests were either dislikeable or, worse, deadly dull. How long would it take you to make your excuses and get out of there? Five minutes? Well, it’s the same with reading a novel" and advises writers to "Make the Characters Likeable".

As Roger Cox in "The Scotsman" pointed out "One of the trickiest puzzles short story writers face is how to get readers to care about their characters. The first obstacle is the lack of incentive: if we know we’re going to be spending the entirety of a 300 or 400-page novel in somebody’s company, we don’t mind investing in them emotionally; if we’re only going to be spending 20 or 30 pages with them, however, we’re less inclined to make the effort of trying to tune in to their interior life. And then there’s the issue of space: over the course of a novel, an author can develop the bond between reader and protagonist incrementally as the chapters roll by. In a short story, by contrast, there is much less time to sketch in somebody’s personality quirks and show what motivates them – economy and discipline are key."

In "Why Women Read Fiction" Helen Taylor points out that "Female readers are [...] the main buyers of fiction, members of book clubs, attendees at literary festivals, and organisers of days out to fictional sites and writers' homes". Such readers might read novels to get to know the characters. The characters are like real people but without the complications - you can gossip about them without breaking confidences; they won't phone you distressed in the middle of the night. Novel series and soap operas offer familiar characters (old friends) and opportunities for vicarious experiences without readers needing to waste time learning a new scenario. People who read long, popular novels (especially novel series) love to lose themselves in the world of the book, detaching themselves from their surroundings.

Readers who can cope with short stories are rarer - they need to rapidly acquaint themselves with their new surroundings, knowing that their investment is short-term. Reading a multi-author story anthology is harder still, becoming a lost art for the boxed-set generation.

For poetry and Flash there's a similar the need for agile immersion. More often readers need to tune into something less palpable and enveloping - a tone, a voice, or a mood.

What character traits in readers correlate with rapid immersion? Perhaps -

  • Easy detachment from the world (daydreaming)
  • Ability to concentrate
  • Ability to rapidly deduce worlds, characters and situations from small clues

These are much the same traits that writers need, so it's no surprise that only short story writers read short stories - particularly anthologies.

Empathy as device

Some readers distrust immersion, looking out for the mechanics that the author's used to produce the effect. The above immersion traits may corelate with writers' traits but they're not traits that align closely with empathy - there's too much scope for detachment and switching loyalties.

Besides, empathy has its detractors. In "The banality of empathy" it says "Empathy is, in a word, selfish. In his bracing and persuasive 2016 book Against Empathy, Paul Bloom writes, “Empathy is a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now… Empathy is biased… It is shortsighted.”

1 comment:

  1. Concerning readers of short stories, I used to read them because they were just the right length for my train journey to work morning and evening and helped to cut-off mentally from the packed,crowded compartments. At the time I wasn't writing short stories, but the stories I read during that period inspired me. Before Covid we didn't have much time to read novels because of working hours; attention span seems to have shortened in the last decade or so, so it would be nice to think that short stories could come into their own.