Playing Devil's Advocate with the literary greats by Griselda Heppel

My A level English teacher once began a lesson with a challenge: ‘Why should people read novels?’
   Easy, we thought. ‘To find out about the world.’
   ‘Say I’m someone who works in an office, a bank, a business. I have my newspaper for that.’
Who needs books?
Photo by James Abbott from FreeImages
   ‘To find out about people, then; what makes them tick.’ ‘Feelings and emotions.’ ‘See what it’s like to go through something you haven’t experienced yourself.’
   All of these answers – perfectly reasonable, we thought – he batted back like flies. ‘People! I know all about them, believe me. Work with people every day. What can a story someone has made up, all about characters they’ve also made up, tell me about life? That stuff’s just for kids. Pure entertainment. I don’t need to escape into fairy stories, thank you.’
   It was a wind-up, of course. Boris, as we called him (I have no idea why – it wasn’t his name and this was decades before the rise of Another, More Famous than He) was passionate about literature, and introduced us to a wide variety of authors before focussing on the set texts. But that day I learnt something about complacency and naivety that has stayed with me. As an idealistic Eng Lit student, I took it for granted that the last thing the great writers – Dickens, Dostoevsky, the Brontes, Tolstoy, George Eliot – wrote for was something as trivial as entertainment.
Classic literary entertainment
Their purpose was to broaden our minds and sympathies, make us question moral prejudices, maybe even change the world. What Boris’s devil’s advocate performance taught me was that, while these may indeed be their aims, none of them is of the slightest use if the story doesn’t grab you from the start. So far from being the last, entertainment has to be the writer’s primary purpose. Stretching the reader’s understanding, leading us to feel the characters’ problems, joys, pain, tragedy and loss as if they are our own – all that falls into place along the way of a cracking good story. By scorning a novel’s entertainment value, Boris’s theoretical character missed out, not only on a lot of fun, but on the opportunity to practise empathy.
   It’s a funny thing, empathy. Do we enjoy reading stories because our sense of empathy is already strong, or does reading stories make it stronger? While there must be lots of other triggers in our lives – not just books – to feeling empathy, I am beginning to think it’s like a muscle. Exercise it regularly or it’ll grow weak. And fiction – as some teachers and librarians, who guide children to books for their empathy value, understand – is a good exercise machine.
Empathy... it's like exercising.
   Recently I lent a book I’d enjoyed to a friend who only reads non-fiction. The Salt Path is a memoir (so in the right category for my friend) about a couple who, through some very foolish financial misjudgement, had managed to make themselves homeless, and on a whim, decided to escape their situation by going hiking. Cold, hunger, exhaustion and serious illness accompany them on their journey, along with flashes of humour and some hauntingly beautiful appreciation of the natural world. 
 Now, it’s always a risk to share an enthusiasm, but I was totally unprepared for how much my friend disliked this book. The reason? Since it was the couple’s own financial folly that set them off on their difficult journey, my friend had no sympathy with anything – good, bad, painful, sad, joyous – that happened to them on their way. If they were hungry, it was their own fault. Ditto, cold and wet. To be fair, the memoir, while being based on fact, had been shaped in a writerly way; author Raynor Winn had used the tools of fiction to give light and shade, glossing over details of the legal mess that begins the book, rounding off this self-imposed Pilgrim’s Progress with a satisfying conclusion. My friend, accustomed to hard facts and traditional historical narrative, clearly found this blending of genres suspicious and was therefore unable to enter into the world of the two main characters. Whereas I, more used to fiction, was happy to go with the flow, because it didn’t matter that the memoir wasn’t correct in every tiny detail; the vivid description of the couple’s journey, both physical and emotional, more than made up for that.
   In other words, reading fiction appears to offer ways of exercising the empathy muscle that an exclusive diet of non-fiction doesn’t. Frankly, in an ideal world, I’d make reading fiction compulsory for all. 


Valerie Bird said…
A fanulous blog! It speaks to me of why I write and of the reason some books don't work for me. Will need to expand this when I've given it more thought. Thank you, Sandra.
Sandra Horn said…
Terrific, Griselda! I couldn't agree more that empathy is the key - not only to the enjoyment of the story, but the enrichment of the mind of the reader. It's an elusive thing, though - I've had some lively discussions over the years about books that have 'reached' some people but left others cold. I think there's an element of 'Oh yes, I know how that is' so perhaps it's not surprising that it's so variable.
Griselda Heppel said…
Thank you both - glad my blog post struck a chord!
Umberto Tosi said…
You nailed it, Griselda. Thinking about it, empathy is caring about the characters, which keeps me - and I presume other readers - turning pages. I flail about at the start of writing a story and it only clicks when I start to feel for the characters I'm trying to portray.
Griselda Heppel said…
Many thanks, Umberto. You’re right, it’s vital for writer as well as reader. If we don’t care about our characters they won’t come alive, and the reader won’t be able to care about them either. I find I have to work hard at this, as story ideas come to me more easily than the characters to drive them.
Eden Baylee said…
Great post Griselda, and so agree with you.

Fiction allows the reader to expand their knowledge of others’ lives in a way that is different than with non-fiction. The latter is informative. We read it to primarily glean knowledge, whereas fiction invites us to identify with characters, to consider their goals and desires instead of our own.

Though we read with the luxury of knowing that a book of fiction is not real, the ability to suspend our disbelief and feel for the characters speaks loudly to how we might behave in the real world.


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