Empathy, Preferences, and Quality

"The problem with empathy is that it tends to move us to help people who are like us. People who attract our empathy tend to be people who resemble us in matters of gender, matters of class and color and nationality, and we're not that good at imagining the situations of people very different from us." Larissa MacFarquhar

We may also not be very good at imagining the situations of people we don't like. Do you think this goes for fictional characters as well? We've probably all seen Amazon reviews where the reviewer 1-starred a book solely because he or she was "put off" by the central character. A near-violent negative reaction to a character means, for that reader, the book was bad. 

Q:  Is it OK to conflate personal preference and qualitative judgement? Is it true that, as Tao Lin put it, "There's no good or bad in art, there's just preferences."? Have you ever met a good book you didn't like? What about a person, for that matter? Do the same rules apply?    (04.30.16)

I think the real question is what's the difference between personal preference and qualitative judgment? To me, there isn't one. You could argue that qualitative judgment is based on research and observations and things of that nature but that's not really true. When most people research, they are simply performing the act of confirmation bias. For those who don't know, confirmation bias is when you have an idea/thought, like "Kanye West is an ego maniacal jerk", and then you only look for and notice pieces of information that reaffirm that position (like Kanye West telling Taylor Swift he made her famous and should, therefore, have sex with him). You see, it's really hard for people to maintain a level of objectivity in decision making. We naturally have biases. And, to be honest, it's a pretty good thing we do. In the case of evolutionary theory, humans need preference and bias. Without them, we may have ended up not getting traits that would've helped us to better survive and thrive. 
        "[Gasp] Gabriel! Are you saying we are born with the ability to make preferences!!??" says the Dear Reader.
        "Yes, Dear Reader, that's exactly what I'm saying."
        I believe that human beings are capable of ignoring these biases, if properly prompted and motivated. But, in the case of art, people will dislike and like things that may or may not make sense to any other rational individual. That's kinda beautiful, at the end of the day. Because we, as individual free thinking beings, don't have to agree or come to a consensus on every little matter. Just because some dude didn't like a story due to the main character being "too aggressive" or "too mopey" doesn't mean that everyone on the planet will think the exact same thing. Nor do they have to. 
        Tao Lin was definitely right. Good and bad art are relative and, like time, change depending on how far away from our personal Sun the works of art are. If the piece of art is too close to our Sun, then we think the art is too much and burns us up with the amount of information that is attempting to be conveyed. If the piece of art is too far out, we freeze over and become cold and distant to the piece. Just like our celestial heavenly bodies, the art has to hit the perfect Goldilocks Zone and be just right for our palettes. Once in the Zone, everything is right and people hail the art as masterful to them. But yeah, art is cool.

Interesting argument. Dostoyevsky’s protagonists jump to mind. His novels are seething cesspools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Empathy? I don’t think so. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture. Art is about confrontation, about keeping us at the edge of our seats, not realising the seats were pulled away. The only “good books” I didn’t like were books in translation: Mann’s Magic Mountain in English was tedious and difficult to get into, while in German it kept me up at night. A flesh and blood person is not judged by the same criteria, they are “manipulated” by conversation, they surprise us, because of the way we read them, and if we allow them, they always get a second chance – a chance an abandoned book rarely gets…

The cool thing about art, about writing, is that it can engage. It can spring to life with another person’s perception of it. It can be so much more than intended, or less. I am not only OK with readers conflating personal preferences and qualitative judgment, I want that.  
        What exactly is “qualitative judgment” anyway? To me, the word “judgment” in the term indicates that preference is implicated. How does judgment not include preference? If not personal preference, at least group/cultural/social preference? The norm right now may be a preference toward concise writing, simple sentences, but how many “great” writers established their merit otherwise?  
        I think everything in art is based on preference. But that isn’t a reason to get lazy. A reader may not like a word I use, but I should like it. I should be aware of it. I should have thought about it. Readers can recognize something lazily written versus something deliberately written. I’ve often read a book and thought, that was well-written but not for me. I can’t remember ever thinking that a book was poorly written but loving it anyway. I’ve heard friends, mostly non-writers, react similarly. I think readers are complex. They do not simply like or dislike a book or character. They appreciate effort. They appreciate not having their time wasted. They apply their preferences without the harshness that writers might read into those preferences. 

Every Consequence


Brokering against identity
holdup in line two, just carry
on, will do/can be
a do-gooder and indicative
of periphrastic stratagem. 
Loathe prompt, savvy prompter, 
to a degree. I will get humanity
out of this verse if takes
me perpetuity. Uh, fuckless,  
there, the first person—
I put them in, now I must
flush them out. Chuck
the setting, this charade
of carnage is sans serif, 
money, syntax, money,
mechanism’s machinery, control
the control groups—subtract
any panic button, all air holes, 
every consequence; no cause
or effect except the semicolon
of Make Contiguous States Great
Again, ™ and/or make insert
characters seem more lowercase
in every test market.  

"People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive." -Blaise Pascal, De l'art de persuader
        I can relate this with what I do on a daily basis: teaching a second language. In this case English. I can prepare flash cards, play on a video with the words I want to teach in context and prepare all kind of audiovisual aids, but my students won't learn a thing if they don't have a prior scheme, a set of parameters by which to relate inside their brains: a certain structure. 
        It's all about experiences and experiences build up knowledge, establish preferences — the ones pleasurable and painful are going to predominate and then the brain will do what it does to get rid of those not needed. 
        The same happens with reading. The reader's brain will find a niche to adhere to throughout the lecture. All those experiences will bloom, relate and stick and if it's found relate-able, then the reader will place himself in the story and follow you to the end. So I believe the key is to create a story relate-able and appealing to the reader, capable of being attractive and not necessarily beautiful, because attractiveness and beauty are two different things and very particular to each person's tastes. 
        Art and beauty are subjective and lay behind the eyes of the beholder, and the focus of subjectivity is a distorting mirror.  

Inherent in every story is conflict. It is the job of the writer to increase that conflict, to build tension, all while  creating empathy. You may not be able to relate to a serial killer, but you can certainly relate to heartbreak, or abuse, or loss—some of the elements that have created the monster. But also, that story must have some sort of change—and a denouement, that epiphany at the end where the protagonist (or antagonist in this case) understands what has happened, and certain aspects are resolved. We don't have to like our protagonists, no, but we do have to engage. Along the way, that monster, well—he or she may become the hero. And in those moments, that dislike, that hatred may turn into something more powerful—that empathy you were just asking about. 
        At the heart of every powerful book, and I'd also argue, the center of every "good" person, is the desire to help others, the need to be loved, a sense of the world around them, and a built in sense of sympathy, kindness, and empathy. There's that word again. The books that have stayed with me, they do all of these things—whether it's Of Mice and Men, Perdido Street Station, The Stand, or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. There are certainly dark books, that go down and down and end in suffering and misery, no hope for any of us. But sometimes the light at the end of a tunnel isn't a train—it's a flashlight, helping to show the way out, back up into the light. 
        I've tried to put less death in my writing these days, and more love; less hopelessness, and more... hope. It still tends to be a roller coaster ride, tragic for sure, but the characters are more likable, and there is more empathy throughout—even if it takes a while to get there, the early pages filled with all manner of darkness, disgust, hatred and loss. When it flips, later, when that monster is revealed to be something more, the story has the potential to move you, to be fulfilling.
        When it comes to color and nationality—don't we all bleed the same red? Is it easier to relate to a straight, white male protagonist? I guess. But I'd have to say that probably only accounts for about half of the books and stories I read these days. I have no problem loving or hating female protagonists, rooting for them, understanding their plight. The same goes for other cultures, nationalities, sexual orientations, etc. If it's a good story, told well, then it'll engage me. And along the way I may learn something new—it happens all the time. You can look at the last anthology I edited, Exigencies, to see that—or the current roster of authors who are going to be involved with Gamut." 

Certainly we all conflate personal preference when we write, and I am of two heads about it. On the one hand, yes we write our 'preferences,' what we know best. In this way we impart our subjective view of the world, and the world is a richer place for our idiosyncratic vision. 
        On the other hand I'd like to think that our preferences go far beyond characters who resemble us. I believe that very often the characters we are most drawn to, are the ones that we understand the least, the ones who are very flawed in some particular way, and who perhaps touch a nerve. We examine them closely, and for me at least, they stick. I can't get rid of them until I've attempted to flesh them out. It's the same with real life, with people who irk or move me in some way. Without getting too psychoanalytical, I enjoy dissecting them, turning them around in my mind, wondering how on earth they came to be the way they are: the old man dressed up in a very outdated brown, plaid blazer, wearing a beige trilby, day-glo yellow glasses and two-tone brogues who was shuffling down the street yesterday. The woman from Bhutan on the train who felt drawn to me (I am convinced of it – we writers like to think we have such powers), was dressed in traditional, layered skirts, and was on the verge of tears. She was either authentically in pain or an accomplished trickster. I gave her my phone number.  
        It's so crucial as writers to be aware of our own preferences, because it's easy to write ourselves into a hole if we don't attempt to look elsewhere. To see what we don't particularly want to see. I like to refer to certain criteria which help support characters (and real people I may not care for) which go beyond my personal pet peeves, and keep me from a certain inertia. Things such as authenticity, conviction and truth. These come in varying shades of good and bad but mostly somewhere in-between.
        Most of all, for me right now, bravery is big – how brave is a writer/character? What risks are they willing to take? I did read a slim novel recently which has been reviewed everywhere with great fanfare, and I just hated the writer and central characters! They struck me as posers, self-absorbed and fundamentally uninteresting. I had the feeling that the writer was trying to impress us by name dropping, but not in any conventional way. She used the characters as a vehicle, I thought, to show off her impressive knowledge about art and philosophy.  She made oblique cultural references and it was very distracting from the story at hand. But at the same time, I was compelled to read on and had to admire the book. It was so unlike anything I'd read recently, and felt like a classic in some way. Despite the annoying bits, it was authentic and brave. 

toc - LINE - short.jpg

Is it OK to conflate personal preference and qualitative judgment?  
I don't think it's correct to conflate these, but it may take training to prevent these kinds of judgments from impacting each other. 

Is it true that, as Tao Lin put it, "There's no good or bad in art, there's just preferences."?  
There are many factors that compose our environment; some make it easier to act rightly, others harder.   
        A weapon isn't good or bad. However, if weapons are permitted they contribute to an environment in such a way that it makes it easier to do wrong.  Training in the use of weapons can decrease the negative impact to the environment, but never entirely remove it. However, there may be some rare times when having weapons in the environment becomes necessary on the same principle.  
        Similarly, a work of art itself cannot be good or bad, but the work does contribute to the environment. Unlike weapons, which are designed for violence, the impact of works of art are much more ambiguous. Depending on someones development as a person (through experience and education) a work may be either a positive or negative force in the environment. However, unlike weapons, I think education can help to make even the most problematic works (e.g., Sade's Justine) into positive forces.   
        Do we always have, and can we always guarantee the universal access to such education? I think not. But, if anyone sees liberty to select any subject matter for works of art as important, we should feel obliged to work towards this goal for education. (This education may reduce the 1-star reviews you mention).  

Have you ever met a good book you didn't like?
Not personally. Of course I encounter stories and characters I don't identify with, but this is welcome. I read to build a relationship with my fellow readers, and to expand my horizons.  

What about a person, for that matter? Do the same rules apply? 
It's hard to identify with everyone, and it's hard to always react positively to differences. For example, it's easy to be frustrated by someone who is trying to solve a problem you care about but is only fanning the flames. However, a person's action can be judged good or bad, but I would be very apprehensive to call a person good or bad. I have a personal maxim to avoid criticizing other people's characters unless I am willing and able to discuss it with them.

I have to say, I disagree with the quote of Larrissa. As a counselor I counselled many variations of people, from all walks of like, yet was able to empathise with each one. I may not even have liked them, but to empathise is different than sympathising. 
        As for books and characters, I have been put off reading some books, because the characters did not create any other feeling than boredom — is that the writing style of the author? Perhaps, but the character promoted within the book will have had nothing to make me 'feel' anything for them — they become insignificant. Do I care if they die, survive? No, so move on! NOT the same with people. I care about people, but I think... no, I obviously do have preferences, as a good person is preferable to a bad person. Now, that being said, I created a very nasty, vile character in my book Echoes, and I had such a strong reaction from readers — they obviously despised this man, but felt compelled to read the book and loved it because it made them really feel emotion.
        I have counselled many people from all walks of life, men and women. Some I really didn't like as a person because of attitude towards others, selfishness, greed, self obsession to name a few, however, once I look beyond these faults, it is easy to see the hurting person behind these false attributes that they use as a barrier so once you see that, it is easy to empathise, but not sympathise with their situation. I also have not liked 'good' people as they have come across as 'false' and even good people have flaws - I have found a few to be arrogant, rude, self-styled guru, so I never judge someone or something on good or bad, merely if I have a positive experience with them/it. 

If you've never made friends
with an enemy, your taste is perfect.


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