One of the guiding principles of my storytelling is empathy – empathy as both the creative factor and the takeaway. It’s a hot topic in publishing nowadays: everyone talks about how books are key to helping one understand or see others in this world, how one can see the other is just “a person like them”. This is all very important and a goal worth pursuing, and I do see it as part of my responsibility as a writer. Yet I think I operate from a different conception of what empathy is, as a writer and reader. This is what today’s post is about.
There are countless Publisher Weekly articles and Twitter threads discussing/celebrating empathy in literature. Sometimes the person talking about the subject doesn’t explain what empathy is – it’s expected that we all understand what it means, like a universal truth.
What is empathy anyway?
I’m not gonna open with a dictionary definiton like Some Kinda Academic. Instead, I’m gonna pull up a Wikipedia definition like a Heathen.
Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.
In these discussions and conversations, one word often comes up in connection to empathy: “relatability”.
What is relatablity? This time I’ve to use a dictionary definition (Macmillian).
the quality of being relatable (=easy to understand and feel connected to)
Relatability is a popular device and concept for writing for awhile now. You can see this device clearest in most modern-day animation. There’s a Hero Avatar (the Average Joe, the Everyman, the Underdog) who acts as the link between the audience in the real world and the events in the story. In many Western media, this Hero Avatar is often portrayed as the Middle Class Straight White Man/Boy from America, because of the powerful yet laughably false assumption that the identity and experience of Middle Class Straight White American Male is the Most Universal Identity and Experience of a global audience.*
*aside: Not to say this identity/experience is doomed to never be valuable. The problem is, not many books/films explore the emotional, psychological and societal nuances of that identity/experience beyond the lowest common denominator, beyond the most minimal requirement of relatability, beyond unquestioned assumptions of whiteness and masculinity. This blandness is all in service of diluting the Middle Class Straight White American Male protagonist so that every real-life MCSWAM can mold themselves into him, and the protagonist can be part of every MCSWAM. I’ll not talk about whiteness/masculinity in particular, but the issue of bland relatability is part of the argument I am building up to. Wait for it.
Understandably, people have been pushing back against this false assumption. Authors who are marginalised in America, and authors who live in other countries, are putting out stories that show us identities, experiences and worlds beyond the MCSWAM. To show that the the stories of the non-MCSWAM can have the same power of relatability as stories of the MCSWAM on the same audience. There is an effort in the publishing industry to find and publish diverse voices (though the effort is not yet good; about 50-90% of the industry, both behind the scenes and on the pages, is white).
This development is why empathy and relatability have become such hot topics recently. So we’re back to where I started this post: the countless articles and Twitter threads.
These articles and threads talk about how allowing people, especially children, to read books about others (which I define as: a person who is not you aka another person) will teach them empathy, which hopefully will lead towards a participation in social justice. The idea is that through the experience of reading, the reader will be able see themselves as the protagonist – in short, relating to them. It’s in this relatability that many writers hope the goal of empathy is achieved. If you the reader can support and love the protagonist, and feel their journey as if it’s your journey, if you can easily imagine the protagonist as YOU (“just like you”), then you’ll achieve the compassion and understanding necessary for social justice by virtue of becoming that protagonist during that short time.
That’s not empathy.
THIS is the danger zone. There’s not a very big leap between empathy (understanding the other as themselves) and consumption (understanding the other by becoming the other). Relatability is the name of that fine line.
People in publishing will remember several instances of when manuscripts were rejected because the POC protagonist is not “relatable” or “connecting” to the (usually white) editor/publisher, or when books written by marginalised authors are given unfair reviews because the reader doesn’t relate or connect those writings back to themselves (whether or not they share the marginalisation). A few years ago, in Tumblr, there was this thing where fans/readers would comment on webcomics/illustrations saying something along the lines of “This person’s experience of being XYZ is not my experience as XYZ. Because it is not relatable to me, even though we are both XYZ, the other person is inauthetic and wrong.”
On the other hand, when we strive to make our protagonist relatable, we run the risk of diluting the uniqueness of their character, so that the protagonist represents everyone and no one. In exchange, the protagonist no longer represents themselves. They have no integrity, and so, like soft gruel, get consumed.
This is the problem of the accomplishment for relatability as the only vehicle of empathy. Yes, it’s important to get people to understand that diverse identities/personhoods/experiences are not alien and that everyone is at their core a human being, and there are always commonalities even in our differences. BUT –
It’s more important to understand that others who Not You are still their own separate entity worth respecting. You may never understand their lived experiences, get their cultural inside jokes, or appreciate certain flavours of their cuisine… but that’s OKAY. You can ACCEPT that gap exists, at least. Because lived experiences, histories, cultures, religions, violence etc, they are never meant to be easy to comprehend or relate to, but they should not be a barrier. Your complete understanding and/or relatability to a person’s entire being, or your ease of understanding/relating to them, does not and should not determine their personhood.
And often, what is considered relatable (especially universally relatable) in a professional space is set by who has the most power and the most money. This is why so much that is published is still white (and North American), because the gatekeepers of the industry are mostly white (and North American), because those books get past the sludgepile by the magic of the gatekeeper feeling a “connection” with the pitches, or the idea that the book can sell to the largest audience by appealing to the majority (of where the gatekeeper lives). This doesn’t always mean the gatekeeper is unskilled or malicious; this means they have a bias that needs to be actively checked. The fallacy can also affect gatekeepers who are not white and/or North-American. What matters is power.
This is why, while relatability can be a useful tool for empathy, making a story/character relatable =/= empathy =/= social justice.
Personally, I get squeamish about the idea of writing for relatability. Because, very rarely in my entire life, have I ever felt I could relate to a character in comics, animation, books or whatever else. Yet, that lack of relatability has never stopped me from enjoying these characters, of being taken along on adventures and to new worlds. It’s just that I never felt the need to become or see or feel myself as these characters. In fact, I saw them as friends – people who are different than me, but who I am sharing an experience with. I’m still me, and they are still them. The lessons we learn are ours alone (me as an audience in the real-world, and them as a character in a story arc).
So I have never focused on relatability when it’s turn to become the writer. It’s not my wish to get my readers to relate to my characters. My wish is to get my readers to know my characters first as strangers, then as friends (or familiar strangers). My characters may have emotions or thoughts that my readers may recognise as also emotions or thoughts they have experienced. But my characters remain themselves, not as Avatars, and those emotions or thoughts remain theirs in context of the story. There is always a boundary, a separation, a place where the reader and character cannot meet, that I will never magically poof away. The reader will never completely know them. Or become them.
My hope that when readers learn to unconditionally accept the characters as separate entities, to appreciate the characters as different, to be comfortable that people or experiences can never be 100% congruent, and to value those characters regardless, that they will be comfortable with the real world. A real world where privileges and power structures exist, where blindspots and deliberate efforts to stratify are everyday… where the relatability of the struggles of the marginalised is not enough to initiate justice for all.
I don’t pretend my books will somehow contribute to social justice, but if what I write can produce thought independently in the reader, to consider or dispute alternatives while keeping integrity of both their bodies and the bodies of real/fictional persons, then that’s all I can ask for.
The Banality of Empathy – the article that made me aware of the ethics of empathy in storytelling and the hollowness of relatable-empathy. I don’t necessarily agree with all of Serpell’s points, but her exploration of empathy is important and points out how relatable-empathy doesn’t have a 1-to-1 result towards justice, compassion, equality, freedom and peace.
The slippage between emotional empathy and the good in our public discourse also presumes that when we do feel the suffering of others, we are prompted to relieve it. But this is not always true. Sometimes, we just want it to go away. Bloom cites a German woman who wrote a letter complaining of the concentration camps near her home: “One is often an unwilling witness to such outrages… I request that it be arranged that such inhuman deeds be discontinued, or else be done where one does not see it.” Other times, we empathize with suffering as a kind of amusement that has no bearing on our ethical behavior. A case in point: white American football fans may wince with vicarious pain as they watch black players ram into each other, but that doesn’t mean they care about the state-sanctioned violence to which those players are susceptible when they walk off the field.
And, this is where I finally saw that relatability can end up being consumption:
The empathy model of art can bleed too easily into the relishing of suffering by those who are safe from it. It’s a gateway drug to white saviorism, with its familiar blend of propaganda, pornography, and paternalism. It’s an emotional palliative that distracts us from real inequities, on the page and on screen, to say nothing of our actual lives. And it has imposed upon readers and viewers the idea that they can and ought to use art to inhabit others, especially the marginalized.
Perhaps worse, it has imposed on makers of art, especially the marginalized, the idea that they can and ought to construct creative vehicles for empathy. This grotesque dynamic often makes for dull, pandering artworks. And it in fact perpetuates an assumed imbalance in the world: there are those who suffer, and those who do not and thus have the leisure to be convinced—via novels and films that produce empathy—that the sufferers matter. The scales remain tilted and this is why cultural appropriation still runs only one way, as does what we might call ethical slumming. To wit, when I, as a black woman, read or watch a white male hero, I’m meant to take on his perspective by default; no one assumes that it humanizes him or makes me more empathic. Unless, of course, he’s Hitler.
And the distinction which I alluded to my final two paragraphs.
Rather than virtually becoming another, she [Arendt] asks you to imagine using your own mind but from their position. It’s a matter of keeping your distance, maintaining integrity, in both senses. It has some affinity with Bloom’s emphasis on cognition rather than feeling. This need not be cold, just less… voracious. I find that the best way to grasp the distinction between “representative thinking” and emotional empathy is Arendt’s lovely phrase, “one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.” This way of relating to others is not just tourism. Nor is it total occupation—there is no “assimilation” of self and other. Rather, you make an active, imaginative effort to travel outside of your circumstances and to stay a while, where you’re welcome.
It has something in common with John Rawls’s veil of ignorance, which is also geared toward political justice rather than moral feeling: What would I want the world to offer me if I were born in another person’s situation? What is it like to be and think “in my own identity where actually I am not”? How would I—still as myself—“feel and think if I were in their place”? Note that you might feel and think differently than they (say they) do; the point is to inhabit the position, not the person.
Reimena Yee is a graphic novelist, artist and flamingo enthusiast.
She writes and illustrates quite a few webcomics and graphic novels. When not making books, she lulls away her time with essays on craft, life and experiences in the publishing industry. Some of her thoughts of art and life are rather unstructured and will evolve over time as this blog matures, as they should be.
Currently committed to being Alexander the Great's death doula. Is a nerd for all things spooky and historical.
Melbourne / Kuala Lumpur