Two sides of fiction, one road to empathy

How reading fiction might inoculate you against FAKE NEWS

“Harry Potter! Are you crazy?” was my response to great friend, who tried to convince me to read The Philosopher’s Stone. Older and wiser, he responded with a smile, “It is good fun. You won’t believe how she holds it together. She doesn’t forget anything. Nothing goes astray”.

His choice surprised me not only because both of us spend our time reading Booker prize shortlists. I simply couldn’t imagine someone like him taking time out to read Harry Potter— which, I discovered, revealed much more about my prejudice than about his taste.

Although plot-driven stories are always entertaining— the whodunnit intriguing until the end— my disinterest in such fiction is due to its lack of power. It may be that some page-turners had been more impressive than others, but they never really seemed to change me, mature me, the way that works of literary fiction collided with me, forever changing my path.

“See! I told you!” said the same scholarly friend, when I confessed I had just finished the third Harry Potter book, admitting that reading without prejudice might help to treat others without prejudice. But, for however curious to know what would happen to Harry in his fourth school year, I decided to desist when I saw the looming time that would be needed to read the sequels, while my pile of literary fiction kept stacking up. Besides, I thought, such a good plot could only be made into a movies.

Although the two forms of fiction often overlap, the main distinction is the stereotyped characters of popular fiction that are immediately identifiable, maybe even labelled as good-guy and bad-guy, and devoid of the complexity of characters of literary fiction that presents flawed, uncertain people who are seen from the inside, in their minds. Literary fiction focuses more on the interior world of individuals than on the events that connect people, whereas the opposite is often true for popular fiction. The overlap occurs to the degree in which the two elements of plot and character approach one another, since both are naturally present in a story. The kind of language used is also a determining factor, as poetic elements become stronger in literary fiction, where the beauty of language is used to incite reflection and allude to meanings difficult to capture.

Therefore, it was fascinating, but hardly surprising, to encounter the fairly recent news of scientific evidence indicating that readers of literary fiction are better at reading other’s minds.

Reading other’s minds? I almost guffawed. How silly: is that an objective worth having? And: exactly how does one prove that scientifically? After reading the article, I realized the journalist might have been at a lack of words to describe the discovery that reading had been found to be anything but the solitary, unsocial activity it had been thought to be. The process occurring in the mind when reading is apparently quite the same when interacting in the real, social world. That means that readers of literary fiction practice using the same social tools of inference and acceptance of complexity, intentions and emotions in order to comprehend others — as well as developing intuition, the powerful tool used to base more decisions than one probably realizes. In other words, reading the mind.

My conclusion from the evidence extrapolated that readers of popular fiction and nonfiction were not necesarily practicing the skill of empathy, which led me to articulate my own hypothesis, something I had been suspecting recently, while watching the world in the midst of a maelstrom of other, banal forms of fiction, including “alternative facts”, “post-facts”, “fake news”, and the convenient repackaging and rebranding of narratives.

Something tells me that my dedication to literary fiction has inoculated me against such lies.

While there is always a chance of a vaccine failing, getting inside of others — empathy —immediately builds a defense against such “news”. One shot and you immediately see the the stitches of their arguments coming apart and the seams splitting, revealing the unabashed objective of arousing anger. Such fallacies are blatantly written and spoken in order to hurt people. What is more: regular doses of literature give one the uncanny ability to pick up on certain missteps. One wrong move, one voice off-key, one slip in the narrative, and I immediately smell something untrue, contradictory or nonsensical within an individual. There is something wrong. I start asking too many questions: What do they want? Why are they telling this story? Why are they telling me this story? What is it they want from me? Why all this emotion? Then a motivation is declared that is dishonest. Disseminators of such half-stories delate themselves with the discrepancy between their actions and their words, leaving a little hole to go right into their heads, where the lies they’ve told themselves about their very own intentions are found. Once inside their heads, I can clearly hear what they are not saying; I clearly see what they are not doing. They don’t know I’m inside them, seeing why their words and actions contain no beauty, thereby inspiring no reflection, containing no wisdom. It is because there is an edifice to prejudice, from where there is no push to add knowledge to this world; it operates purely out of fear, protected by a moat of fiery bravado. They are afraid of being wrong. Afraid to be discovered. Afraid to be flawed. So they refuse any more context than that which fits within the tiny boxes they allocate for samples to be analyzed in their laboratory, alone. They cannot see — or do not accept — the challenge they have inside of themselves. They haven’t located their prejudice in order to work with it, so it works on them. And it is not just because they are flawed — flawed is what we all are and it is what makes us interesting — they are unconvincing, which is the worst thing a character can be. It is what makes you drop the book half-way through. It is not only failure in storytelling, it is also was makes you turn your back on a person.

I have the further contention that such people do not even bother to read novels. They can’t. It would attack their edifice. Afraid to be wrong, they would never pick up one of the many beautiful books from a “shithole” country. From the list, you may see my review of and the reflection caused by Ghanaian-American Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.

The beautiful lies that are fiction come from artists painting pictures from the inside out, allowing us to see with another pair of eyes. And the more that is experienced, the more, I believe, it is more difficult it is to be taken in by the amateurish, fake story filled with holes.

Empathy has also been at the center of a recent debate surrounding the proposition by Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom in Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Calling it a “bad thing”, empathy is described as an individual and selective spotlight that might be cast out of anguish over a little girl fallen into a well, but not over climate change or poverty. The premise is insightful. Although I did not read the book —let’s say it is not exactly my genre either, and my stack is piling up — the idea that empathy was a bad thing was unsettling. Empathy is the basis of morality, that first stepping stone learned after two years old. I found advocating against it shocking, although I understood the importance of reducing a selfish empathy for the greater good of compassion. The rebuttal I was looking for was nicely illustrated by British writer Roman Krznaric in “Why we need to move empathy from personal emotion to collective moral concern”, who describes two forms of empathy and the historical examples of one of them to transform society. In fact, I believe both authors were actually recognizing the same lacuna, the need for a collective compassion — from different angles.

And it was with the empathy to absorb different angles that my more patient and maturer friend simply ignored my reaction to his reading Harry Potter.  Mirroring his besting of me, I decided to lower my guard, and read without prejudice or any need to categorize a book as fantasy, children’s or popular fiction. Unafraid to be wrong, off I went to Hogwarts. And the experience led me to yet another hypothesis in defense of readers of fiction that is not necessarily literary. Scientists might also study subjects’ capacity for analysis of events, and their ability to calculate probability. Something tells me that readers of plot-driven, popular fiction are much better than I am at predicting possibilities and consequences, including those of fake news. I am still baffled by its success and the subsequent ramifications I could never have imagined, whereas it has been obvious for others.

It might be the reason why I had not seen the nastiness of Professor Snape was fake news.


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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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