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.
If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts.
I confess I don’t know much what to make of Kurt Vonnegut. I first picked up a novel of his – Slaughterhouse Five – in high school. I didn’t get very far in it, mostly because I couldn’t quite get a fix on what I was supposed to think about what was going on. It all seemed a jumble to me, and weirdly empty of…of something. I read Cat’s Cradle in college and felt much the same way. “What the hell is with this guy?” I thought. I was surrounded by people who worshiped him – said he was funny, poignant, the best American author of the modern era. I just didn’t get it.
Fast-foward to this past week, where I finally sat myself down and read Slaughterhouse Five all the way through. It is a brilliant work, no doubt – age and experience and the state of being a writer has taught me to notice good fiction even if I don’t care for it – but I still don’t know quite what to make of it all. I did not dislike the book, but I also cannot say with any truth that I liked it. I am left in a kind of artistic limbo.
The word that most strikes me when I read Vonnegut is “empty.” Not that nothing happens, but that no motives, no reasons are allowed to attach to the events. People just are the way they are. Things happen because they do. So it goes.
This is a derivation of postmodern thought, clearly. Vonnegut is quite adept at pointing out the absurdity of the human condition, and expounding upon how that absurdity is compounded by the human race’s fervent desire to prove that it isn’t absurd at all, but instead invested with deep meaning. He is by no means the only author to do this, nor do I dislike those other authors necessarily, so it isn’t Vonnegut’s philosophical grounding that alienates me from his work. Indeed, I find it really fascinating how he can be so aggressively post-modern without being bitter or angry or horrified.
But then, part of me I guess wants him to be bitter and angry and horrified. I don’t, in the end, find his dark brand of humor funny because I guess I care too much to laugh. I find myself flailing around in his books for something to hold on to and it just isn’t there. There’s nothing – it’s all absurd, it’s all nonsense. And there’s Vonnegut, evidently kicking back and relaxing despite all this. Just shrugging, saying “So it goes,” as though the tragedies he just described don’t matter.
And I guess he’s right – they don’t, not in any cosmic sense – but to me, I feel they ought to. Each time a bomb goes off because some ridiculous asshole decides to blow himself up for his imaginary, absurd vision of the divine (or his bitter hatred of his mother or because he’s a closeted homosexual and can’t handle it or because of no reason at all), I am of two minds. The first is horrified, angry, and craving justice. My heart weeps for the victims – innocent girls, this time – and I want very much to do something. But then there’s that second mind, that dark, postmodern one: 22 dead people, in the end, don’t really matter much. If 120,000 people could die on one day in Dresden and the world kept turning, no amount of stupid little kitchen-made bombs made by bitter, angry men will make much difference. In the Second World War an average of about 27,000 people died each day. And yet the world is still here, making the same damned mistakes, giving power to the same damned monsters, and spouting the same damned bullshit. Same with any other war. We don’t learn.
I gotta say, I hate the part of my brain that thinks this way. It’s defeatist, even if it does seem to be right. And maybe that’s my problem with Vonnegut, too – he might be right, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
If you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to watch Patrick Rothfuss Explaining Why Literary Snobs Are Wrong. I’ll wait until you’re done.
Okay, so as somebody who happens to straddle both the academic/literary world and the fantasy/spec-fic world, I’ve run into a lot of the same sentiment that the girl who came to Rothfuss’s reading did. During my MFA program, I had a couple workshops where Fantasy or Science Fiction were outright rejected as viable submissions. In one such workshop, one professor (a lit-fic short story writer) used to ask us what books we’d read recently. Each of us would have a turn. When they got to me, I said Steel Beach by John Varley – a science fiction novel (and a hell of a fun read, by the way) – and the woman reacted as if I’d belched in her face or something. She pretended I hadn’t said anything and class moved on. That stung a bit, let me tell you. I hated that snob and her sneering assumption of what qualifies as literature. Still do.
Part of the divide between the worlds of so-called “Literary Fiction” and that of “Genre Fiction” (an artificial distinction, and I whole-heartedly agree with Rothfuss that everything is a genre) has to do with the concept of “realism”. What is “real” and what is “not real” is, for some reason, important to us in our stories. There are great swathes of people out there who, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, still believe that what is written in the Book of Genesis is factually true. These people don’t do this because they are crazy (or, well, not necessarily), but because the understanding of the “real” is of such incredible psychological importance to the human mind.
In Plato’s venerable Allegory of the Cave (which, for you spec-fic philistines, is basically the same thing as the Matrix, except without bullet-time or snazzy outfits), he depicts to us a world in which the people trapped in the cave…
…can see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave…and if they were to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them…[and so] the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
Plato here is describing what philosophers refer to as the “Veil of Perception,” which was explored more fully by thinkers like Descartes and Locke, but basically involves a central problem of human experience: what we see is necessarily filtered through our various senses and our senses are not always reliable. Since we cannot always trust our senses to reveal the truth to us, we are required, therefore, to either exist in a permanent state of doubt and skepticism or, conversely, to take certain things on faith as true so that we may operate in the world without anxiety. Of those two options, most of us tend to choose the second one. We prefer to think of the real as being actually real since to do otherwise would require an awful lot of work and not a little bit of discomfort.
Enter fiction! When we read a work of fiction, we are being lied to, completely and totally. None of the things being described happened, none of the people are real people, and none of the places are real places. We have to suspend our disbelief in order to engage with fiction. We have to accept these blatant lies on faith. We do this because we are able to gain from the experience – the story, even if false, resonates with our understanding of the world.
Now, in “Literary” Fiction (which is primarily focused on the real, concrete, and even contemporary world), suspension of disbelief is easy – it’s barely even noticeable. Even those stories that involve the fantastic are very tightly bound by certain realistic expectations. From such realist fiction, though, the realm of writing travels very, very far. Fantasy fiction is the furthest of the bunch, arguably – a world that is very much not our own, adhering to its own laws, governed by its own cultures and history, and so on and so forth. The suspension of belief at that end of the scale is fairly substantial – it asks you to accept the impossible as plausible in order to engage in the story. While I can readily accept that this isn’t for everyone, the supposition that doing this automatically disqualifies you from a serious literary discussion is fatuous nonsense. As Rothfuss rightly points out, many of the great works of literature are fantastic in nature. Were they to be published today, they’d get stuffed in the Scifi/Fantasy shelf right alongside Rothfuss’s stuff (and my own, though I hesitate to put myself in the same company as Rothfuss as yet).
The big question, though, is why does realism even matter that much? If all fiction is lies, anyway, who cares what the lies are about?
We writers, we are all liars. We lie about different things and in different ways and to different degrees, but it’s all lies anyway. We lie because we’ve found that’s an easier way to get at the truth, ironically enough. To say this writer is telling lies that are too big to believe is splitting hairs – I don’t buy Holden Caufield, nor do I accept Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea as realistic, but what of it? What we’re debating here is matters of taste, not truth. We are quibbling over style without bothering to have serious discussions about content. Something “not being real” is not a criticism, because none of us have any real way of distinguishing the real in the first place.
Read what speaks to you and be willing to listen to that which at first seems strange. That’s all you need to find true literature, no matter what genre it is.
The more I think about it, the more I believe that all storytelling is simply negotiating the narrative tension between the exotic and the mundane. Read a book on storytelling or writing or screenwriting, and odds are you’re going to hear something along the lines of “all stories start the day something changes”. What that means, essentially, is your main character is going along with their daily business when something knocks them out of their regular routine and forces them to adapt to new circumstances. Joseph Campbell outlines this famously as the “Hero’s Journey” – the hero begins in the normal or mundane world, the Call to Adventure is answered, they enter the Special or Magical World, and their adventure begins. I think there’s more to it than simply that, though. See, just because you run Campbell by the numbers doesn’t mean you have a good story. Furthermore, as important as the plot is to a story, there’s a lot more at play there, too – theme, setting, style, and so on. I think that all of these things are also caught up in that dichotomy, between the exotic and mundane.
If you are writing in the real, mundane world, that story won’t be interesting unless that normalcy is made somehow exotic. The exotic – another way of describing the new and novel – is what gives a story purchase. It’s what draws us in. We are not interested in a patent clerk. We are interested in the patent clerk who is the brilliant physicist. We are not interested in a high school, but we are interested in a high school Saturday detention session that changes the lives of several young people. Without some aspect of the novel or new or strange, we don’t actually have a story.
It works both ways, though. The exotic cannot maintain our interest without some element of the mundane. This comes up a lot in science fiction and fantasy, actually; the mundane is used as a way to allow the audience to identify or sympathize with characters in a bizarre environment. The further a story drifts from what is identifiable, the less potent the story becomes. Why? Well, the audience has no emotional hand-holds by which to come to grips with the action. If I write you an epic war among single-celled organisms, I’d need to do certain things to make you engage with the story. If I don’t, it’s just a bunch of goo going at it in a petri dish. To use a real-world example, consider Dune, which is about as exotic as you get. Amid the Bene Gesserit and the Gom Jabbar, we have Paul and his mother. We have Paul taking a test. We have Paul in pain. These things we understand, and these things allow us to connect with Paul early on. They carry us through a story that would, otherwise, be an unidentifiable alien landscape. The exotic is tempered by the mundane so that we can access it intellectually and emotionally.
The more I think about it, every story has this balance to strike. Now, the precise nature of the balance is very wide, but it is nevertheless there. Our normal world needs the new and unusual to keep our interest, just as alien worlds need some aspect of the normal to do the same. This strikes me as something very fundamental to storytelling and, while I’m certain somebody else has put it into words better than I have here, I honestly haven’t seen this idea explored. It probably warrants some explanation.
From time to time over the years, I have had arguments with friends, family members, and teachers over why I write/read science fiction and fantasy. Many of these people have characterized their objections thusly:
Why don’t you write something real?
Let us, for the nonce, put aside the assumptions of reality and how it is experienced inherent in that statement. The central critique there (and I have heard it in many forms from many different people) is that, because the events of science fiction and fantasy either cannot happen or are not currently happening, entertaining their existence is pointless. Better to focus on the here and now and real.
I’m sorry, but I fail to understand how that is in any way superior an endeavor.
I’m not saying it’s inferior, mind you – not at all – but rather that it is essentially equivalent. The focus on the now and the actual teaches us things about who we are and who we were. It peers inward and backwards. The focus on the potential and the theoretical teaches us things about who we might be or what we might become. It peers outwards and forwards. I think that is something as important to consider, don’t you? Time does not stand still. We are (as individuals, as a society, as a species) changing, often in ways unexpected. We need to think about what might happen to us or what will become central to our identities if X or Y is stripped away, morphed, replaced, undone.
Tolkien once wrote:
He who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.
Tolkien may be right in the realm of the real world; there is no good reason to destroy society before one understands it, no good reason to dismantle and institution or a device of a belief before you can see how it works. The change we see in the world can be both destructive and creative, and which is healthier cannot often be seen by looking inside or gazing backwards. Because something happened before does not mean it will happen again, particularly not if circumstances change (which they always are). So how, then, can we theorize? Well, by speculating. Hence, speculative fiction, hence dreams, hence, fantasy. See?
Look at these maps. Look scary? It is, I suppose. It is also, in a perverse way, exciting. The world is going to change. How we adapt to it and what becomes of that change is often dependent upon how well and how creatively we dream about the future. It also deals with the past, of course (betcha Holland is going to get a lot of phone calls), but it cannot rest exclusively upon the province of what has been. Ironically, history is littered with the corpses of societies that thought looking backwards was superior to looking ahead. You never go anywhere if you do that, and he who stops moving dies.
In science fiction, we imagine our world as it might be; we apply basic principles of science to the world we know and imagine how it reshapes the world. In fantasy, we can strip away the preconceived notions of history and culture and expectation and perform, if you will, a kind of mock experiment upon the human heart. We learn from both, and to openly decry either as pointless to our culture is worse than wrong, it’s willfully ignorant.
So, yes, I think it’s fine that you have a love-affair with the Old Masters and that nothing gets your heart a-stirring more than a deeply flawed character stumbling through modern life in the latest upscale fiction sweetheart shortlisted for Booker Prize. You’ll forgive me, though, if I stick to my Nebulas and Hugos and World Fantasy Awards. Reality has never been all that motivating for me, anyway.
First, you ought to read this brief piece of Joel Stein being a jackass. Heard this sentiment before? I bet you have.
Let me get one thing straight: I am not a YA author or fan, in particular. The science fiction and fantasy I write, I write for adults and, perhaps, mature teenagers. Weirdly enough, I usually don’t sympathize with the principal characters in YA fiction. I don’t recall a particular time where I was uncomfortable with myself or who I was (though I do recall plenty of people who had a problem with who I was who made things unpleasant, but I never considered that anything other than an external problem and I never adapted myself to them). I have always known, basically, where I wanted to go and more or less what I wanted to do. I had the misfortune of watching someone very, very close to me die very, very painfully throughout my entire teenage years, and this taught me a lot about what mattered. Other people’s opinions or the ridiculous insecurities of adolescence didn’t make the list.
Nevertheless, I appreciate what YA fiction can and has done, and not just for young adults. It distills very complicated, very adult problems into slick, fast-paced stories and, furthermore, gives your average teenager a voice in that problem. This is not only important for kids, but it makes a good lens for we adults to peer through from time to time. It makes us step back from ourselves, to try and remember a time when we weren’t so calcified into our lives. It makes us hope and believe in possibility in a way many of us don’t anymore. It kills cynicism in a way only the young truly can.
Furthermore, the sentiments of arrogant literati like Stein also encompass something else: the clear and emphatic disdain for that they choose not to deem ‘literature’ but, instead, cast off as ‘mere genre fiction’. This is the bit that really gets me.
Look, you’re entitled to your taste. You don’t like one genre or the other, fine. But two rules:
- Just Because You Don’t Like It, Doesn’t Mean You Can Rip On It: I say this without irony: grow up. Are you actually incapable of appreciating something because it doesn’t appeal to you directly? Are you one of those immature jackholes who can’t admit a man is physically attractive because you’re afraid you might be considered gay? Is the reason you don’t and will not read YA fiction actually because you feel it adds nothing to the literary discussion, or is it, rather, because you are so pathetically insecure that the thought of another person witnessing you reading something intended for another age group give you the willies? Seriously, man, if the rest of us have to read Infinite Jest, you can man up and read some YA fiction just to see what the hype is about.
- Admit that Everything’s a Genre: That literary fiction you so adore? Guess what – it’s genre fiction. It has its set of tropes, standards, acceptable styles, target audience demographics, and the rest of it. Their readers focus on style and metaphor over plot and pacing. They forgive the occasional self-indulgent tangent or purple prose passage. Writers are pushing buttons in that genre the same as in every other one, so let’s get down off your high ‘literary’ horse and admit, once and for all, that literature is something much, much broader than what you perfer to define it as. Watchmen is literature. The Giver is literature. Neuromancer is literature.
I really don’t know how many times I need to say these things before they stick. You are all aware that some of the most pivotal and powerful stories of our history started out as simple adventure tales, right? Can’t you perhaps admit that The Hunger Games may be tapping into something important? Granted, I haven’t read it (and am not especially motivated to), but it isn’t because I think it’s bad or lacking (though it very well may be). It’s because I’ve got other things ahead of it in line, simple as. I’ll get to it when I get to it, but I’m not about to hold it against anyone who’s reading it now, no matter how old they are.
Science Fiction and Fantasy novels and stories aren’t for everybody. This isn’t a radical statement, I’m sure, but its significance or whole meaning is often obscured behind a fair amount of sneering and looking down one’s nose at the genre(s). If somebody comes to me and wants to read ‘good’ science fiction, I want to refer them to either William Gibson’s Neuromancer or Frank Herbert’s Dune (after stressing to them that there really isn’t much point to reading past the first one). The thing is, though, I don’t always do that. I ask them some questions, first, usually revolving around their inherent purpose in delving into scifi. “How complex do you want the story to be?” I’ll ask, or, “How good are you at figuring out exposition via context clues rather than text dumps?”
If I get blinks and stares to these questions, or guarded statements like ‘I don’t like crazy science stuff’ or ‘I don’t want to read something I need a degree to understand’, I back off from recommending my true favorites. I give them something pallatable and easy, like Russel’s The Sparrow or Childhood’s End by Clarke. This is not to say that these aren’t fine books (they are quite wonderful, each of them), but they aren’t the kind of sci-fi that really blows my mind. They aren’t the kind of thing that, once I start reading it, I can’t stop. They don’t suck me in. Neuromancer does, every time I read it. The very first line sets me going: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
Gibson, in the first twenty pages of his novel, drowns you in the dismal streets and seedy bars of Chiba City as you watch Case stay one step ahead of Wage’s joeboys while strung out on drugs. The detail of the place is immersive, wonderful, powerful. You do not, however, know exactly what’s going on. This isn’t your world, and Gibson isn’t holding your hand as you dive into it. You’re running behind Case, glancing at the scenery as you try to keep up. Gradually, though, you build a vocabulary. At some point, when somebody says ‘the Sprawl’, you know what they mean. When Case ‘punches the Hosaka’, you feel the ridges of the buttons under your fingers. You’re part of the world now. You know its rules, its conventions, its dark alleys. You’re as much a resident as Case is, perhaps more. That is, as much as anything else, the reason I read sci-fi and fantasy.
This, though, isn’t for everyone. When I was in grad school, I can’t tell you the number of times somebody gave me a distasteful look when I said I read and wrote scifi. It was as though I had belched at a volume that would rattle fillings and refused to apologize. I had a professor in a writing workshop who forbade the submission of works of science fiction or fantasy and, when I would bring up scifi novels in the course of class discussion, she would literally sneer at me and then pretend I hadn’t spoken. I kept bringing them up anyway, though, when discussion permitted. She gave me a B+ for the course (which is horrendously low in grad school, FYI).
Once, in another class and as part of our homework, we had to bring in a chapter of a novel we loved and distribute it to the class. I brought in the first chapter of Neuromancer. When we came back the next class to discuss it, three or four people hadn’t read it and, therefore, didn’t contribute to the discussion. Their reasoning? “I don’t read scifi” or “I didn’t get it” or “It was boring.” As though the plodding, overwrought prose of their favorite litfic novelist was a blast for me. As though reading the first chapter of The Great Gatsby for the millionth time was somehow enlightening to me. As though the latest Jodi Picoult speaks to me because, you know, she writes mainstream fiction and, obviously, I should love it because that’s what books are. I was pissed at those individuals. It was a slap in my face, because there is no way one can read Neuromancer and say it’s poorly written. It isn’t – it’s brilliant.
The reason it doesn’t speak to those people, though, is that it asks the reader to do something other books don’t. It asks your forebearance. It commands you to be disoriented for the first ten or fifteen pages as you get your bearings. “This is an alien world,” it says, “so bear with it while you settle in.” That settling-in process is one of the things I love about the genre I call ‘home’. It can be done poorly, yes, but when it’s done well, there’s nothing quite like it. I mean, I admire Steinbeck and Hemingway as much as the next guy, and I’ll give my grudging appreciation to Toni Morrison and Jose Saramago (actually, no – I can’t stand his style. It’s like needles in my eyes), but they don’t take me anywhere new. I don’t get to hear the helium-giggle of Lonny Zone’s whores in the Chastubo while Ratz slides my Kirin across the bar with his Russian military surplus prosthetic arm. All I get is another scene from plain old planet Earth with plain old people doing the same plain old thing. Well done? Sure. Magical? Rarely.
Give me the Bene Gesserit administering the gom jabbar. Throw me into a book with a glossary twenty pages long. Don’t tell me another sad tale about some guy learning to find his way in a tough modern world. Give me Case, punching his Hosaka while coming down hard off a Beta high and watching his slick Chinese slow-virus get ever closer to the gleaming security ice of the Villa Straylight.