Shouldn’t we all want to explore the topic of empathy?

This is one of two posts about a work in progress. See related posts here and here.


So much of what is written these days is simply production. I am particularly annoyed by SEO and the idea of diluting language to the 100 most commonly used search terms to improve the likelihood of discovery. As if discovery in and of itself has value and the message is secondary.

Say what you need to say.

If what is being written is production then what is being consumed is also production and this is a downward spiral into the degradation not only of language but also of the most important reason for language: to communicate the human experience.

Empathy is being so much aware of someone else’s experience that one understands both the feelings and actions of that other person. It is sharing the human experience with other humans and connecting with them through that sharing.

Empathy is a connection. But, really, connections are made all the time.

With so much exposure to the experiences of others, are we not hyper-empathetic? You can almost hear the music, the language, the expressions mapped together in order to elicit empathy. Empathy keeps us tuned in. Just ask all those reality-TV producers that urge us to care about total strangers.

So should high art rely upon empathy to engage people?

Readers of high art should be invited to an unusual experience: a collective narrator like the neighborhood boys observing The Virgin Suicides or the multiple-narrator, multiple-era, multiple-style conglomeration of Cloud Atlas.

Readers should be expected to empathize with people not like them and by doing so be opened, honestly, to the vulnerability of their own constructs. They should think: one bad decision, one series of unfortunate events and I could be other. Less fortunate. Less.

When my cousin was in high school his church youth group decided to spend the weekend sleeping in cardboard boxes on the church lawn. They wanted to experience being homeless.

But on Sunday afternoon their parents picked them up and took them home. Teenagers with homes cannot experience homelessness any more than one can experience loss or  grief or hopelessness without actually being those things.

Even so, we are drawn to those experiences and we want to know them. The security of having gives us the courage for wanting. Empathy is a desire to have the experience of another without the courage to actually experience what that other has experienced.

Empathy brings us just close enough.

So high art cannot be about empathy. Empathy is too false.

For fiction to be high art, it must strive to change the reader.

We must be different because of our exposure to it. We cannot let our security shield us and give us courage, we cannot feel comfortable while we empathize. We must experience the art and be changed by it.

We do not have to be homeless. But nor can we empathize with false understanding. We must instead allow those parts of us that protect us to be changed by exposure.

Burn them off.

Blow them away like ashes.

Be raw and unafraid.

Be tender and stinging.

Be willing to change.

My project Letters to Richard Ford wants to explore those raw, naked places where literature dares us to not look away. Who wouldn’t want to read that? Who wouldn’t want to take the chance and be changed, truly changed, not just safely, falsely empathetic?

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