Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Can fiction save the world?

As the previous posters have said, this has been quite the week. Indeed, quite the year. Brexit, Paris and Calais, Trump... Not to mention the daily tragedies of frantic refugees risking everything to reach Europe's shores. As a Canadian, I have been watching the recent drama of conflict, accusations, and counter-accusations from afar, worrying about all the anger and confusion and fear. As I listen to the bitterness and disbelief on both sides ("How could they?" from the left, and "Sore losers" from the right), I am reminded of a Beatles song: What the world needs now is love, love, love.

Or more accurately, empathy. Because there is precious little of it around right now. People are dividing themselves into us and them. They are crossing their arms, thrusting out their chins, and refusing to listen. Refusing to hear. Worse, they are lashing out, cruelly and vindictively.

How are we ever supposed to reach across the divide if we stand on either shore, hurling insults without ever venturing out onto the bridge?

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines empathy as "the ability to share someone else's feelings and experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person's situation". In the majority of people, empathy develops naturally as we grow up, but psychology had focussed a lot of research on what factors influence and strengthen its development. If you're interested, here is one quick summary of their findings.

Empathy increases as we grow older, so that most of us adults are pretty good at reading minds. You can test this concept, and your own skill, by taking this short quiz on reading the mind in the eyes. But there is always room for improvement, and I'd say from the increasingly intolerant behaviour being displayed, we all have serious work to do. Here's a short article on ways even adults can increase their empathy. Not surprisingly, really listening to others and getting to know people different from yourself top the list.

BUT... There is another way that even the most brick-headed person can develop more empathy, and that's where we writers come in. Empathy is all about walking in another person's shoes, about being able to step out of your own skin (in your imagination) and into another's. Research has shown that groups of people vary in their level of empathy and in who they feel empathy for. It's easier to empathize with people who are similar to you than with people who are extremely different (from another culture, another country, even another political viewpoint). Intriguing research is also emerging about the differences between conservatives and liberals, and between extremists and moderates of either stripe, about the difference between men and women, and between the ordinary joe and the very wealthy ... But these are all subjects for a different blog.

This blog is about writing, and one of the fascinating findings is that reading fiction increases empathy. Not only do people who read a lot of fiction score higher on empathy, but even reading a piece of fiction in a psychology lab will increase your empathic reaction in the moments afterwards! Check out a summary of findings here. Despite some faults with methodology, the studies confirm what we writers and readers of fiction intuitively know -- that walking in the shoes of the characters in the book, experiencing their struggles vicariously and trying to make sense of why they act as they do — enhances our understanding of people in the real world as well. Fiction has been called empathy's "flight simulator".

Extrapolating from this, I would guess that the greater the emphasis on character, on subtle differences and changes, and on complexities and layers of motivation, the more powerful the effect would be. That's where mystery fiction comes in. Research found that literary fiction had the greatest effect because of its focus on character, but not all crime fiction is created equal. Many (but not all) of the best-selling thriller variety pays scant attention to character, and many (again, not all) cosies intentionally downplay the pain of conflict. However, I suspect that mystery fiction that reveals complex character, conflicting motive, and blurred boundaries of good and bad will foster empathy better than shoot-'em-up, "good vs. evil" action stories.

So, crime writers, take heart! Writing books that explore the human condition and invite readers to walk in you characters' shoes and think "there but for the grace of God go I," may not make us rich and famous, but they can make a difference.

And readers, in this gift-buying season, consider giving the gift of fiction, and venture past the best-sellers to the back of the store to find those lesser-known books that tell tales of struggle and conflict and the wondrous highs and lows of being human. Tales that really transport you into the world of another. Read about people and situations different from your own. From the safety of your armchair, explore beyond your comfort zone.

Book by book, we can strengthen our understanding of each other and reach across the divides where at the moment all we see is "the other". Not "us".

1 comment:

Patricia Filteau said...

Thoughtful, well written, well illustrated - thanks for sharing these thoughts.