On Literary Fiction and Empathy

I recently received a review on my newest novel “I, Charles, From the Camps”. I mostly don’t pay much attention to reviews, but this one made me think. While laudatory regarding the plot and story line and beats and sense of purpose and power, “The story is sad. It is raw. It is violent. The characters are well-developed, the atmosphere compelling. The story-telling passionate. Owing to its realism, it is nothing for the faint-hearted,” – the reviewer did focus on one problem which in his experience detracted from the work. In his opinion, “There is little in his (Charles’) “voice” which would identify him as a black, tribal African and reveal the warmth and simplicity of his own native tongue.” The protagonist, a young African man from a refugee camp, was too “European” (by this I think the reviewer meant refined, eloquent – white). He would have preferred, I suppose, Pidgin or some more halting form of communication.

This naturally guided my thoughts to issues of racism – and empathy. I write literary fiction; which is not a genre most Americans are comfortable with. Albert Camus in his treatise “The Rebel” laments the fact that American literature dwells mostly on the actions of the characters and the reactions they provoke – not delving into the inner struggles of the troubled protagonists and the sordid motivations of our antagonists. Even a masterpiece like “East of Eden” does not attempt to enter Kate’s twisted heart to try and illuminate if only just for a moment why her brokenness. We seem content with a narration of a series of events alongside descriptions of our natural landscapes, which compelling as they are I find somehow wanting.

Besides, what do we really know about the inner life of people? What about those who are somewhat uneducated, poor? How do we know that an angry young man from Uganda’s camps is not, in the quiet of his own mind and in constant communication with himself – as we all are – equally as eloquent and complex as we perceive ourselves to be? By giving Charles a healthy, tumultuous and profoundly secret life, somehow I was not being true to the character that should be ignorant. And by using the power of the language of my audience I have endowed him with “western” eloquence to describe his anguish, I am disingenuous?

As authors we learn early on not to play too much with language; the days of Sam Clemens mimicking rustic slave jargon is over, and good riddance. While though, as I’ve said above and channeling Camus, they might be effective for showing realism, they tell us nothing of what is going on inside Jim’s head. Nor do they establish empathy. While writing in Pidgin might lend authenticity it detracts from readability, especially for those who want to know what is going on inside Charles’ head. How could I have achieved the vivid, passionate writing and the dynamic protagonist (which) will remain with me for quite a while,” or Powerful, compelling, and thought-provoking, (…) a remarkable coming-of-age tale that will shake readers to their core” had I descended into broken English?

I’m currently reading “Inventing Human Rights” (review forthcoming) – in which Lynn Hunt is attempting (somewhat successfully) to trace back the west’s laser focus on “rights” to their source, which she finds (spoiler alert) in the expansion of empathy resulting among other things from the birth of the literary novel. Allowing people to put themselves in the shoes of others who they could never hope to know, or perhaps even meet, helps them make common cause – empathize – which revolutionizes the way they think about their fellow man.

Back to Camus – and my problem with modern American literature as well; it is somewhat unfeeling, because of the systems we are forced to adopt – rules of writing which are pushed on us by editors looking to sell quickly. “Show, don’t tell” we are told. “Put it into action,” – because we do love action. This, however, detracts from the power of a literary novel; not allowing us to learn from our characters, to hunger with them, to receive their beatings on our own backs – and yes to murder with them too. I realize as I re-read this that it sounds somewhat defensive. Guilty as charged, I suppose. I am not writing to complain – it would do no good anyways. But because it is an issue that I did think through and research before writing; and found incompatible with a novel that connects people. I want my readers to feel what Charles felt, what so many hundreds of thousands of Ugandans felt living as they did for 25 years in the camps; to know the suffering of people they probably only think of as objects of charity. And that, friends, is the purpose of literature!

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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