The Same Old Thing About the Importance of Empathy in Literature

| Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Today's Tune: I Was A Fool

I'm not generally super big on telling people how novels should be written, other than the obvious "you might want to brush up on basic grammar rules and story structure so you can convey your thoughts appropriately" advice. Generally speaking, though, I think that everyone's method for creating, writing, and structuring a story is largely dependent on how they work as a person. If it works for you, then it's what you should be doing.

That said, there are things I think everyone should at least consider while they write. Caring about how you portray your characters, and who you decide your characters are, is one of those things.

In YA, there's a lot of discussion about inclusion and representation. We have people who are passionate about calling out cover whitewashing, as well they should. Others actually sift through the data to discover what the real numbers are when it comes to diverse representation on YA covers. There are people who make points that they want to publish more diverse books, but people have to commit to buy them. We have long lists of GLBT YA fiction, and we're always pushing for more, because the current numbers aren't nearly representative enough.

There's a reason for this. It's because we're writing for young people, and we know that if we want to see real change in the world, we need to help the younger generation not only see themselves reflected in their media, but inspire those who are already incredibly well represented to empathize with people who aren't like them. How many times have we heard that white kids can't relate to brown kids on book covers? That boys can't possibly be expected to read "girl books?" That two boys kissing on a cover will upset straight kids, and they shouldn't have to see that?

Well, why not?

Why are we so insistent that people who refuse to even try to relate to someone who isn't just like them be catered to? I'm hardly the first person to point out that members of privileged classes tend to view any attempt at inclusion as an infringement on space they belong in. We saw a shining example of this recently in young white women who think being rejected from their first choice college means their "rightful spot" was given to a person of color because of Affirmative Action, because that's the obvious conclusion to jump to.

It's not news that women have been required out of necessity to "relate" to male characters over the years. It shouldn't be a surprise that people of color have had no other option but to "relate" to white characters. Members of the QUILTBAG community have had a smorgasbord of straight characters to "relate" to, and they've done so. So why is it that we keep upholding this idea that a character needs to look, act, and be just like you* in order to be relateable?

* "You" only applying if you're white, straight, abled, and/or male, of course.

This is why there's such a push in the YA community for inclusion. Because we need to start somewhere, and starting with brilliant and capable youth is a perfect place to begin. We know, science knows, everybody should know that reading books inspires empathy. This is important. This means the things we read stick with us and shape our minds and our perception of the world. This is where we start teaching people that they can see through another person's eyes, walk in their skin, and gain a glimmer of understanding of what it's like to be someone else for a little while.

This is why "reverse oppression" novels are usually so crass. Because instead of writing about the actual people who are currently struggling with oppression, some writers feel like they have to take the privileged class and put them in a distorted position of oppression in order to illicit that empathy. This is what happens when we keep nodding our heads and letting people get away with pretending it's impossible to relate to someone who isn't just like them. And doing that inspires the kind of myopic and self-centered vision that perpetuates all of these issues. When you are excessively represented in every media outlet you could possibly imagine, you can benefit from listening to someone else's story for a little while.

And this is why it's so important to think about who we're including in our novels, how they act, and what they do. Because novels can change minds. Literature can make us see what we couldn't before. And representation matters. Seeing other people matters. When you're a kid who feels like kids like you don't get to have grand adventures, it can mean the world to see yourself reflected in the pages, and reflected well. Not with the same stereotypes hurled at you on a daily basis, but with nuance and realism.

That stuff means everything.


{ Krispy } at: April 17, 2013 at 2:17 PM said...

Bravo! You make such good points about how representation can lead to empathy, and I think that's what people often don't get when we talk about diversity and representation. It's not just about having ourselves reflected realistically in media, it's also about education - and often this is the most important kind of education because it's subtle and subconscious. Varied and diverse representation helps battle stereotypes and other notions that are already embedded in us from society. Like you said, it allows for more empathy and more change.

If I see you at Outsidelands, please allow me to shake your hand (or give you a hug, but that might be too forward?). ;)

{ Stephanie Ingrid Sarah Kristan } at: April 18, 2013 at 12:13 PM said...

"we're writing for young people, and we know that if we want to see real change in the world, we need to help the younger generation not only see themselves reflected in their media, but inspire those who are already incredibly well represented to empathize with people who aren't like them."

So, so true. Great post, Steph!

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