Last month I attended a talk about fiction and empathy with the lovely Books inter alia, at which a panel of speakers from neurologists to novelists spoke about empathy as it related to their field of practice. While empathetic reading is incredibly interesting, I found myself linking these subjects up with thoughts I’ve had for a lot longer about emotional engagements with fiction. Empathy is our way in – characters and plot lines we cannot in any way empathise with are bound to struggle. Empathy is a vehicle for investment.
READING AND FEELING
As emotional responses to fiction go, I have quite strong ones. Really good fiction will make me cry, or bounce around in joy, or spend fifteen minutes staring at a wall. I want a piece of fiction to elicit something personal.
There are certain books where my reading experience changed hugely following a degree in English Literature, like The Vintage Teacup Club. On one level that might seem like a shame, but I choose to see it as a positive – my standards have been raised. I might be harder to please, but what I do enjoy I have more confidence in recommending to others. And that doesn’t have to invalidate how I felt then – I keep fond memories of how I felt the first time around.
Reading analytically adds a layer of enjoyment to a good book – it offers me another conversation to be having with the text, as well as the emotional one. It allows me not only to respond, but to investigate where that response comes from, how an author has created something in me. Books like The Tidal Zone which are written intelligently and beautifully and also touch me on a personal level are very likely to make my favourites list.
By reading analytically I am engaged in a more deliberate way than based only on how I feel, which is fallible. Feelings can be influenced by a lot beside the book itself – while a good book can save a bad day, a bad day could also ruin a good book. As I’ve been finding this term, there are some books I know I would really love under different circumstances which reading at a forced pace changes.
The perceived gap between reading critically and reading emotionally is also, in some ways, the divide which exists between the book blogging community and traditional media reviews. It’s a gap which I think bloggers are potentially more aware of than newspapers, who just see us as less qualified readers trying to do the same thing. Traditional reviews aim to give a critical overview of a book, to evaluate it as an accomplishment, and that is obviously incredibly valuable. A professional reviewer who has a broad view of the market will pick up on certain things which a blogger reading at their own direction will not.
But I don’t think bloggers are claiming to offer a similar perspective – in fact, I think blogging is deliberately and wonderfully different. Bloggers will often give a critical response, but also a very personal one – and that is what blog-readers are looking for. Over a long time reading someone’s blog, you come to know their tastes and how they match your own, and put a certain level of faith in their reviews based on that. And crucially, blogs are built not only on criticism but on personality – on the personal reading life of a particular reviewer. Which is why we post wrap ups, and make reflective posts about reading slumps, and do challenges. We are speaking from our experience of loving books to others who might feel similarly. Blogging is a more acceptable forum to be emotional about something you loved, and to share that with a community.
WHAT’S MORE IMPORTANT?
There are books which I absolutely love for which I put critical thinking to one side. Some books, I read only because of what they make me feel – Sarah J Maas, for example, or Harry Potter. There are absolutely critical readings to be made of these books, but that isn’t the point for me. The writing is good enough to create an emotional response, and I don’t have the desire to look at it further than that. Those books are really important to me, and I hold them close to my heart.
Books which have equal standing in terms of a personal engagement and a critical one form most of my all-time favourites – The Tidal Zone, Dept. of Speculation, and Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
But books which I can only admire in an academic context, which I admire critically but didn’t engage with personally, would never make it into those affections. What I’ve been realising recently is that an emotional reaction is essential. A good book can’t be without it – whether it’s interest, excitement, elation, despair, hope. The ability to respond to fiction critically is often lauded as the superior response to have. But over here in my little corner, I think it may be emotion on which critical responses have to rest, rather than the other way around. What I find most fascinating is the why and how that those responses are created, and the question of what readers might do with them. That is the magic of a good book – to take you out of yourself, and transform your inner world for a little while.
All images in this post are books which for me hit the sweet spot of emotionally involving and critically accomplished.
I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on this subject – let me know in comments!