On March 10th, Staff Writer Grace Novarr attended a Creative Writing Lecture given by the writer and critic Namwali Serpell, hosted by Columbia’s School of the Arts.

You’ve probably heard that reading makes you smarter, kinder, and more empathetic. You may have read that Barack Obama said that reading is “a tool of radical empathy,” or heard that “fiction is empathy training wheels.” It’s a sentiment frequently touted by writers and readers of all disciplines – and it’s the sentiment the author and cultural critic Namwali Serpell disputed in a lecture given at Columbia’s School of the Arts on March 10th. In a talk she titled “Beyond Empathy,” she explained her critique of what she termed “the empathy model of literature,” providing a history of how this paradigm came to be as well as introducing alternative models of what reading can do besides fostering empathy.

Serpell is a Zambian writer and Professor of English at Harvard University. In 2019, she published her first novel, The Old Drift, which promptly won several prizes (such as the Ainsfeld-Wolf Book prize) and was shortlisted for several others, including the Ray Bradbury prize for Science Fiction. She also writes cultural criticism and essays; in 2014 she published the work of criticism Seven Modes of Uncertainty, and in 2020 she published Stranger Faces. She has another work of criticism forthcoming, American Psycho Analysis.

After an introduction by Ben Marcus and some friendly banter with the audience, Serpell launched into her talk. She began by citing a recent review of George Saunders’ latest book A Swim in the Pond in the Rain. This review, published in Bookforum and entitled “The Empathy Industrial Complex,” takes Saunders to task for misreading the sociopolitics of Russian literature and attempting to use the Russians to induce empathy in the readers. The reviewer, Jennifer Wilson, finds this usage of Russian literature inconsistent with her own experience of Russian novels, and critiques Saunders for attempting to use these works to prop up a faux-empathetic interpretation of literature. Serpell explained that this review resonated with an essay she had published in the New York Review of Books, The Banality of Empathy, in which she critiqued the empathy model of literature, writing “if witnessing suffering firsthand doesn’t necessarily spark good deeds, why does reading about it spark good deeds?”

Serpell argued that witnessing suffering and writing about it as an attempt to spark empathy with those who suffer is hypocritical because the writers themselves are safe, sheltered from the suffering that they describe. The “empathy model” imposes the idea that people “ought to use art to inhabit others,” especially the marginalized, and creates an unfair pressure on marginalized writers to use their work to induce empathy in readers. Serpell thinks that this leads to “dull, pandering artwork.” She argued that what the empathy model results in is people who do not suffer reading works about people who do suffer and gaining a hollow feeling of self-satisfaction, a sense that they are a “good person.”

It is selfish and lazy to claim that reading and writing makes us better because it allows us to empathize, said Serpell. She cited an example put forth by Saidiya Hartman: a white man imagining that himself and his family are slaves, and using this imaginary scenario to finally achieve full empathy with the plight of enslaved people. Hartman points out that there is a self-pleasuring masochism in these kinds of “empathetic” fantasies, throwing the idea of empathy itself into question. Serpell explained that both she and Hartman, in their criticism, owe a debt to James Baldwin’s famous critique of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Baldwin argued that Stowe’s novel is so far from being genuinely disturbing that the white sentimentalist who reads the book and fancies themself to be “empathizing” with the characters is actually experiencing a thrill of self-serving virtue. Baldwin credits Uncle Tom’s Cabin with sparking a whole genre of sentimentalist, faux-empathetic literature, the same genre that Serpell is now taking to task.

Serpell asks: why has this critique not yet sunk in? Citing Obama’s saying about “radical empathy,” Serpell posits that perhaps neoliberalism and the affect machine of the media have played into the problem. Of narrative art, she said, “it simulates empathy, so we can believe it stimulates it.”

Finally, Serpell said, her main problem with the empathy model of art is that it is childish. She pointed out that every child, around the age of five or six, experiences the realization that every other human they know is a person “like them,” with thoughts and experiences like theirs, yet radically unknowable. Serpell argues that all that the empathy model of art does is provide this exact same recognition that most humans have already experienced, repackaged as something radical. “To stop at this realization is hardly an ethical education,” Serpell said. “As writers, we have a responsibility to think beyond the empathy model.”

So what is beyond the empathy model? To answer this question, Serpell laid out for the audience the long history of how writers and philosophers thought about the role of empathy in reaction to art. She began with Plato, who in The Republic posited that art is imitative of life, and therefore dismissed it as being secondary and derivative. He suggested that as art imitates life, so life may imitate art. Seeing something acted out on the stage creates the kind of feelings in us that it would create if we ourselves were to perform those actions, except that these feelings are dissociated. For example, a man watching the character of Oedipus breaking down and behaving inappropriately in public will feel a sense of pity and shame, for he knows that he could not perform the same actions.

Aristotle, on the other hand, argued that the imitative function of art could prove useful. He believed that art is a venue where people could experience and observe potentially overwhelming emotions in a controlled way, and therefore gain control over their emotions in real life. Serpell cited Aristotle’s use of the word catharsis as a description of the effect that observing tragedy has on people. The word means to effect relief, but it can also refer to healing in the medicinal sense. Therefore, Serpell posited, Aristotle viewed art as a kind of psychological healing, a purification of bad emotions through the observation of others.

Serpell then jumped ahead to the nineteenth century, describing the writer George Eliot’s view of art. Eliot believed something not dissimilar to the popular empathy model of art of today; she believed that art “extends our contact with fellow man beyond the boundaries of our personal lives,” and that characters that we observe in a novel may become our models for how we can treat other people. 

Finally, Serpell described an idea that she herself had posited in her earlier essays on the subject, using the theories of the German theater practitioner Bertolt Brecht. She described the alienation effect, the concept that someone might experience emotions that are the opposite of what they’re observing in the artwork. For example, one might feel joy at the sight of sorrow. Serpell argued that the alienation effect is crucial for the criticism of society, because it calls for intelligence and a knowledge of what is socially important, even when the ideas expressed in the artwork are contradictory.

Synthesizing these ideas, Serpell pointed out that all these theories agree that art is imitative of life, even if the emotional experiences that one might have in regarding it vary along the spectrum of empathy. Therefore, Serpell moved to consider a few alternative models of considering art that are less interested in the verisimilitude of art and more interested in emotional experiences that differ from the empathetic experience.

Citing the psychological principle introduced by psychologist William James of secondary or alternate personalities, she linked this idea to W. E. B. Du Bois’ famous idea of “double consciousness.” According to the theory of double consciousness, Black Americans experience a “twoness” of the self; they are split into being Black and being an American. Serpell explained that this concept complicates the empathetic experience of reading, for when a person living under the societal imposition of double consciousness reacts empathetically to a work, which side of them is reacting? 

Perhaps the answer to this dilemma comes in the form of speculative fiction and genre fiction, works that by design complicate things readers are used to holding true. Serpell gave the example of Du Bois’ own collection Darkwater, which contains various short stories and poems. Serpell explained that between each story and the next, the style of narration and the tone of the story shifts so abruptly that the reader experiences an extreme sense of disruption, which necessarily complicates the experience of empathizing with the text as a whole. Another example is Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous tale of Jekyll and Hyde, the defining narrative of the split self. With which self is the reader meant to empathize? The writer Octavia Butler creates a character who is a “hyperempath” to the point that other people’s feelings cause her physical pain. Through this device, Butler warns readers away from the experience of empathy.

Serpell held up these works and these writers as examples of how art can be a kind of emotional division rather than a comfortably empathetic experience. It is important to remember that other feelings besides the feeling of empathy can coexist in a reader at the time of reading. Serpell then explained a point that may seem obvious, but which the empathy model of literature asks readers to forget, which is that literary characters are not real people. They lack the capacity for change and the resistance to being known which characterize most humans and complicate the experience of empathizing with other people in real life. Therefore, to empathize with literary characters is in a sense to take the easy way out.

To conclude her talk, Serpell cited a critical essay by Rabih Alameddine called Comforting Myths, which makes the case for fictional characters that demonstrate this capacity for unknowability that is truer to life. Alameddine connects the “beyond empathy model” to the need to diversify postcolonial literature, allowing books that are discomforting and difficult to empathize with to enter the conversation and the canon. He argues that American literary culture may have accepted the “Other,” but it has not yet accepted “the other Other,” the Other that cannot be empathized with. Serpell agrees that that must be the next step.

Finally, the chat was opened to the audience to ask questions. Serpell fielded several questions about her novel The Old Drift, which was apparently popular with the audience. She explained that she tried to include the capacity for change in the characterization in her novel, supporting the complication of the empathetic experience of reading. She also described her writing process, saying that she had held the novel in her head for a long time before she began to write it down, and that she had discovered that it was the small changes that she had made during the revision process that ended up having the most impact on the overall structure of the book. Finally, answering a question about experimental works that she could recommend that truly showcased “the other Other,” Serpell made a case for returning to the origins of the novel. “I mean, have you read Tristam Shandy? Have you read Don Quixote?” she said. The novel has always been a form for experimentation and for pushing the boundaries of how readers relate to and understand different characters.  By returning to the beginning, maybe we can discover that the other Other has been lurking all along. Perhaps it is finally time to confront his unknowability.

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