Monday, October 26, 2009

Literature and the compassion deficit

I've been thinking a lot lately about the need to show compassion, or "mercy" as Steve Almond puts it,* to the fictional characters one creates. I've been trying to do more of that, after receiving critiques from readers that they could not relate to some of my characters. As students from my class, "Imitation of Life," know, this whole issue is an obsession of mine. The class itself grew out of the frequent comment one hears in fiction workshops, to wit, "I didn't like this character." Meaning the story needs fixing.

But it's not just writing students who say such things. Michiko Kakutani recently eviscerated Jonathan Lethem's new novel, Chronic City. Among her objections was that the main character "expects his friends to stay up all night listening to his stream-of-consciousness rants." Kakutani does not want Perkus Tooth as a friend! What a burden he would be! Whereas Gregory Cowles's review in the weekend NYT Book Review takes these "dorm-room" style rants as satire, which, I suspect, is how they were intended. This is not to say Kakutani is wrong to dislike the book. I'm I am saying that tastes differ, and expectations about what readers can and should seek from literature differ. So Lethem did not awaken mercy in Kakutani. Cowles either did not expect that awakening, or he found it in recognizing Tooth's foolishness. He did not disengage because Tooth was annoying.

Still, in consciously trying to be merciful to characters I'm satirizing in my own work, I am finding that the work becomes more complex and subtle. So this has been a good experiment thus far, and I'm learning lots. In fact, I expect this is ultimately the way to go. So why am I still resistant to the relatively simple, and it would seem moral, guideline of showing mercy? Because I still don't believe characters are equivalent to people. And if readers are seeking to find mercy in themselves, or in the world, as they are reading, what does that say about the real world? In other words, are readers turning to literature to experience the compassion that they do not experience in life? Why can we not turn to each other for compassion, and seek different experiences in literature?

But it's not for me to judge people for what they seek when they read. And perhaps what many really want from literature is something more complicated than "liking" characters or having good feelings about them. Perhaps they seek emotional challenge--to have mercy awakened for characters who are not so easy to like, and to see how that feels. It may be too risky to feel compassion for chronic complainers, freeloaders, abusers, and worse in real life. Then those people attach themselves to us, wear us down, and do considerable damage which we are well advised to avoid. So we seek guidance or practice in dealing with such people in literature, a way to go through the complex emotions and reassure ourselves that we can be merciful--even if we aren't as merciful as we'd like to be in our everyday lives.

Also this concept works better if we think of "character" in very broad outlines. It's not just representations of recognizably human beings, fitted with bodies and stamped with first names and surnames. Character could include tone and voice, so even if one's work is more abstract, it could still awaken mercy for conditions or experiences.

*H/t Kim Wyatt. Actually Almond is saying writers should awaken mercy in their readers, which implies the author is feeling it when she is writing. Here's one place Almond made the statement, a 2003 interview with Bookslut. The rest of the interview is well worth reading.

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