On Empathy and the Novel

To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story. Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.
– Rebecca Solnit

A few weeks ago, someone asked me if I still enjoy reading. Now that words are ostensibly my livelihood, he wanted to know, is reading a pleasure, or has it taken on the heavy, grey character of any other work-related task?

A good question, and one to which, if I’m honest, I didn’t know the answer until it came out of my mouth:

“Novels! I still love reading novels.”

I still love reading other things, too, but over the last few years, the novel has taken on great symbolic importance. For one thing, I’m in no danger of being paid to write fiction, and so fiction retains its mystery, its luminous, dangerous appeal. “Freelance writer” now has all the glamor of a piece of rotting fruit, but “Novelist”…in spite of myself, I picture a grand life. I know better, but it doesn’t seem to matter.

Another thing is this: the novel – like the guilty-pleasure TV show – is tied to the idea of escape. Novels are for taking on holiday, but they are also holidays in themselves. So whenever I go back to California I spend a good proportion of my time sitting on the sunny deck, reading fiction. Then I come home and I think, I wish I could write a novel, and I open up a few old documents on my computer – failed attempts – and I wonder if this time, with new experiences and the beautifully rendered sentences of others fresh in my mind, I might finally prevail against issues of plot, characterization, and inertia. And then I despair: the failed attempts look no better in new light, and the novel seems like an unreachable shore, and I discover anew that my desire to write a novel is hampered, in part, by lack of ability, but also by my desire for immediate gratification, and my inclination towards a form of public self-examination that lends itself more gracefully (if grace is the right word!) to something like an essay or a blog post.


To read a novel – and, I presume, to write one – is an exercise in empathy. A corollary to this is that to read fiction, and to write fiction, is a form of travel. I’m reminded of Graham Greene, who writes as introduction to In Search of a Character: “Neither of these journals was kept for publication, but they may have some interest as an indication of the kind of raw material a novelist accumulates. He goes through life discarding more than he retains, but the points he notes are what he considers of creative interest at the moment of occurrence.” The book contains excerpts from journals Greene kept during the visits to Africa which would serve as the foundation for two of his novels (A Burnt-Out Case and The Heart of the Matter); the first journal begins: “…All I know about the story I am planning is that a man ‘turns up’, and for that reason alone I find myself on a plane between Brussels and Leopoldville. […] The novel is an unknown man and I have to find him: a situation that I cannot yet even vaguely imagine: a background as strange to me as it was to him at his first entrance.”

“The novel is an unknown man and I have to find him” – I’ve always liked that line, the way it implies action, exertion, a voyage out into the world as well as in to the self. Where does a fictional character come from, and how does the author come to inhabit her? It seems to me that maybe part of the answer is a journey – as Proust wrote, “The only true voyage of discovery […] would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to behold the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to behold the hundred universes that each of them beholds…”

Watching a scene from the 1959 film The Savage Eye, I’m struck again by this idea. In the scene, the protagonist, Judith, voices the thoughts of the other women in a shop – the gossipy pair stroking gloves, the girl batting heavily made-up eyes. Judith is from somewhere else, and often it’s only when we’re outsiders that we put ourselves in the the place of others, both literally and figuratively. The state of travel is a state of empathy: to travel is to be in someone else’s place, to see someone else’s sights.

An involuntary game I sometimes play when I’m traveling is to pretend that I belong wherever I happen to be – to watch the girl in the cafe get up and put her coat on and leave and then imagine I’m her, walking towards my life here, my flat, my cats, my job as a graphic designer or a waitress or whatever. It’s partly a way of being in a place – to try to picture it as home, and then either succumb to a happy fantasy or bask in the relief of belonging elsewhere – but it’s also an act of empathetic imagination. In these instances I’m both me and not-me simultaneously, trying to see out over the tall sides of my self. Is this what it’s like to write fiction, maybe?

But the problem is that even the not-me is still me, and my imagination, to be honest, is not that good. I’m heavily reliant on research and experience, and if either fails me, I feel adrift. Take the other day: I stepped out of a shop, onto the sidewalk, and just as I did, a pair of people passed by – a girl, maybe late teens, her face hidden by a vast handkerchief clutched to her mouth, and a man, who seemed much older, maybe her father, with his arm around her shoulder. She was gasping and sobbing, and he was saying, “okay, take it easy, take it easy,” and I tried to imagine what their situation was, who they were, how they happened to be strolling by so casually, so hysterically, on a cool Sunday afternoon, and I simply couldn’t. The things that occurred to me were vague and predictable: perhaps her boyfriend had broken up with her, perhaps she’d just witnessed something terrible, perhaps she was having a panic attack or an allergic reaction to something, perhaps he had just told her that her pony had died, perhaps he was not her father but her married lover, and he’d just told her he would never leave his wife. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

Still: the more I think about empathy, or specifically about empathy and the act of creation, the more it seems to spring up everywhere. The comic book journalist Joe Sacco, interviewed by Jeff Wilson, describes the process of drawing difficult material:

Drawing is a weird thing because you just inhabit everything you draw. And that means you sort of have to appreciate holding up a bat to hit someone over the head. You have to appreciate holding up your arm to stop the bat. And you kind of have to go through the motions of it so you can get the shoulder right as it turns up and which shoulder goes up which shoulder goes down. How does the hand turn […] When you’re drawing, you can’t put yourself out of it, to get it better you have to be in it.

And I think about how sometimes, when I’m reading, I’ll act out something described in the text – a gesture or a tic or a facial expression that I can’t quite picture. If a character twists her mouth to the left, or places her hands one on top of the other in her lap, or raises an arm as if to hit someone, I will too – just to see what it’s like, just to try to understand.


Last weekend I started Claire Messud’s The Last Life, and it got me thinking about writing fiction again. I bought it on a whim, my bags already heavy and my wallet light, but I liked the cover and then I opened it up and read a line: “I am American now, but this wasn’t always so.” Later, back home, on the couch, I read the first few pages. “But in America, at least, where the future is all that binds us, I can seem familiar, new. And for a long time, seeming sufficed.”

It begins – well, not at all like my own abandoned novel, but not so differently, either. I began with Americanness too, in an inverted way. “The trouble with being an American abroad,” I began, “is that you never know where you stand. Everything depends on politics, and politics cannot be counted on.” Not very elegant, not yet fit to draw a reader in, but for some reason I feel loyal to it, and I not-so-secretly hope that someday, when I’ve grown up, I can give it a home, or at least have the balls to burn it down and start again. In the meantime, I keep reading.


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