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.