Nicola Griffith, writing for Literary Hub, warns authors to be wary of how they deploy empathy, taking care not to weaponize it needlessly. Alan Jacobs, on the other hand, cautions against that advice. Or, so he says.
Here’s the latter’s argument:
No, I’m inclined to say to writers, Don’t be careful about portraying negative experience or any other kind of experience. If Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and Toni Morrison had been careful, we wouldn’t have King Lear, The Brothers Karamazov, and Beloved — three works that have been enormously painful to many readers. But that pain hasn’t always been bad; sometimes, for some readers, I am inclined to say for most readers, it has been necessary.
If you read Griffith, however, you’d be hard pressed to come away with evidence that her approach somehow would have negated King Lear, The Brothers Karamazov, and Beloved. Her advice is fairly narrow, and pretty specific: she admits to a bias of “extreme antipathy to wanton cruelty towards helpless living things”.
If you make me empathize with a dog or child or young woman, and then torment them using visceral language, I will experience visceral revulsion, throw the book at the wall, and never read anything you write again. I won’t trust you.
So if your protagonist must suffer (and to a degree we all must), at that point use the reader’s mirror neurons judiciously. Empathy is a powerful tool, and sharp. Be careful how you wield it.
This is a weird position to oppose. Griffith never says that “negative experience” should be avoided. She even offers an example of a protagonist “suddenly punched in the floating ribs”—not as a thing to avoid but as a thing we ourselves would feel in a mirror neuron sense because empathy for her previously would have been established.
There’s a difference between, say, a character who is depicted as having been assaulted and, say, writing five excruciating pages of vivid detail describing that assault. There’s a difference, too, between generating authentic empathy for a character and artificially tugging on the reader’s empathy strings just to fuck them up manipulatively later on.
(Not for nothing, but for a recent example see James Gunn’s most recent and otherwise pretty terrific Guardians of the Galaxy movie.)
Griffith is exacting in her language here.
Alan cites King Lear but, to take just one example from that play, while it’s true that Cordelia dies of strangulation by hanging it’s not like Shakespeare wrote a long, protracted scene of her dangling from a rope. Her death still qualifies as a “negative experience” both for her and for Lear. Nonetheless, it’s not actually depicted.
Before writing this post, I went back and did some blog restoration work to pull in all the others times I’ve linked Alan’s writing. Sometimes it was to agree (about the IndieWeb or Covid, for example), and sometimes it very much was not (about “cancel culture” or dog whistles, for instance). I brought these posts in for context, because of what I’m about to say next.
This is sort of Alan’s standard operating procedure on topics of this ilk. There’s a sort of blithe disregard for the parts of what he’s responding to that either don’t support or that actually dispute the point with which he wants people to come away.
It’s pointless and disheartening and disingenuous, and I fully admit that it’s a weakness on my part that sometimes I can’t just quietly pass it by.