Fiction as Lies

I read a really interesting article from the New York Review of Books today by Namwali Serpell titled “The Banality of Empathy.” In it, Serpell discusses the fundamental fiction of narrative empathy as imagined in literature. She writes:

This viewing experience [of Black Mirror‘s Bandersnatch] finally undid for me what I have long suspected to be a meaningless platitude: the idea that art promotes empathy. This idea is particularly prevalent when it comes to those works of art described as “narrative”: stories, novels, TV shows, movies, comics. We assume that works that depict characters in action over time must make us empathize with them, or as the saying goes, “walk a mile in their shoes.” And we assume that this is a good thing. Why?

The problem, as Serpell asserts, is that narrative empathy – the whole “walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes” – is a self-indulgent and inherently privileged act. We, the reader, wish to experience something outside of our milieu – fine – but doing so amounts to a kind of emotional tourism. Feeling that empathy for whoever it may be – a criminal, an orphan, a slave, a concubine, an assassin, a warrior – is just fun. It doesn’t translate into actual, real-world action or advocacy for criminals, orphans, slaves, concubines, assassins, or warriors. Furthermore, while doing this for fanciful characters is one thing, we start to run into real problems when we start to apply this empathy to real-world people who are suffering, down-trodden, oppressed, or marginalized. Emotional tourism as a space wizard is one thing, but emotional tourism in the shoes of a transgender person gets…reductive, even insulting.

Serpell demonstrates this with an extended analysis of Violet Allen’s “The Venus Effect,” published in Lightspeed in December, 2016 (a phenomenal and inventive story you should all read, btw). Allen deliberately breaks the narrative, over and over again, as a means of conveying a point, but also of exhaustively demonstrating the inherent falsehood of narrative itself. Stories are supposed to possess a distinct structure – a flow of rising action, climax, resolution. We want catharsis and cohesion. It’s all supposed to make sense. Of course, life does not operate by those rules. Fiction superimposes an artificial structure on reality that we inherently accept because of the parlor trick that is narrative empathy.

For some years now, I’ve struggled with reading second person narration. I’ve tried (several times now) to read Jemisin’s The Fifth Season and, being honest, the second person chapters never fail to knock all enthusiasm I have for the narrative right out of me. I find second person jarring – it draws my attention to the artificiality of the text, and it prevents me from identifying or engaging with the story. I am being addressed, but then being told I am doing things that I am not, and the effect is that I know I’m not doing these things and so, by definition, these things are not happening. It’s fingernails on a chalkboard.

I’ve been struggling to understand the why of second person. If you want to draw people in to a close relationship with the character, why not just use first person? In reading Serpell’s piece, now I’m forced to wonder if the problem isn’t just my tastes, but perhaps something larger than that – a certain kind of closeness I don’t want to have. Is it because am unwilling to alienate my own identity to the point where I can immerse myself in the text? Maybe. But then I also wonder whether that pronounced artificiality of second person is intentional. The writer wants to kick me out of my comfortable chair on my emotional vacation. Wants to wake me up and make me look at the story as a story and not a window into another world. Sure, I find this upsetting. But don’t I deserve to be upset? Shouldn’t somebody rattle our cage once in a while and make us look at what we’re doing?

Fiction is, by its nature, unreal. That’s okay! What maybe isn’t okay, though, is the ways in which we forget that and let our fiction do the work our real world selves should undertake.

About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on October 29, 2020, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I haven’t read the article, but I have to turn this on its head. I don’t think we read in order to have empathy, nor should fiction (or narrative more broadly) be seen as a means to achieving empathy. That’s just another way of turning fiction into propaganda.

    It is the author’s job to tell a story, to whatever end. That end may be, in the case of an HBO Special, to tell us something valuable about the world the author thinks we should know. Or it might just be an engaging story, i.e to “entertain” (which is a valuable experience, not as cheap as it sounds). Whatever the author’s goal, it isn’t the goal of telling the story to “get something across” or to achieve some greater goal, some goal outside the telling of the work itself.

    Empathy, rather, is a tool that authors use in order to get the reader into the story. It works a lot of the time, even though it’s not the only tool that can be used to this end. Simple interest, like the interest we have in a clever idea, can also accomplish this. Aristotle said that even character itself was just a tool we (authors) use to get people to pay attention the plot. I don’t know if I’d go that far, because what I get out of storytelling is a form of getting to know people. To me that’s not the same as empathy. I don’t necessarily empathize with an interesting character, but I do want to get to know Rand al’Thor or Robin Broadhead, or Richard II.

    Fiction is not meant to tell us “what it’s really like” to be a slave, or a concubine, or transgender, or an immigrant (again, verisimilitude is a technique authors use to get us into the story). Those are all categories. Fiction tells us what a particular person is like. A story tells us how that particular person deals with those situations. I don’t think privilege has anything to do with it. Yes, I have the privilege of reading about people I’m not, but since I can never not be the person I am, the best I can hope for is to get to know someone. Fiction allows us that in a low-risk situation, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. If there’s any way that fiction makes us “better people” then that’s how it’s done, so people shouldn’t complain. “Don’t read that book, make yourself homeless!” See how silly that is?

    I also don’t think your repulsion to second person has anything to do with “needing to be knocked off your ass” or anything like that, any more than a person deserves to have an aversion to being preached at. Just by virtue of being a free individual, I think you have every right to say no to it. I think it’s just a dumb literary trick that repeatedly fails to get any kind of a story across, except in rare circumstances. It’s great for Choose Your Own Adventure, but those books are for six year-olds. I don’t buy the “readers want to BE the main character” thing either. Readers want to get to the know the person and the world that the characters are and live in. That’s not the same as wanting to be someone or live there. I don’t want to live in a fuckin’ spaceship, I don’t even want to visit, but I do want to read about it.

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