The Sunday Salon: Empathy

Recently, my mother found a Books-a-Million gift card lying around the house, and handed it off to me. There were ten dollars left on it, or, in reader terms, one mass-market paperback. I started picking through the sci-fi/fantasy section. I must have looked lost, as a very nice employee came to my aid with plenty of recommendations. (I ended up buying The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.) During our conversation, I asked him where to start with Mercedes Lackey. He suggested The Shadow of the Lion over Magic’s Pawn, where he started. I asked him why, and he said to me, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial level, that the main character was gay.

I really didn’t have to the heart to tell him that not only was he talking to a queer girl, but an ace one at that. (It’s just so awkward when this happens.) As I regaled my mother with the story, she suggested that perhaps it was difficult for him, a straight male, to identify with a gay male. I think that’s no excuse, but it did get me to thinking about how I identify and empathize with characters.

I identify and empathize with plenty of straight and gay characters, as well as plenty of characters of color and plenty of male characters. Given how Hollywood appears to think that it’s hard for a predominantly white audience to identify with heroes of color, I find the idea that people can’t truly identify with someone not like them downright insulting to everyone’s intelligence. At the heart of things, we are all human–we all experience the same highs and lows of life, no matter what different forms they take. Disregarding a book or any other form of media solely because the lead is queer, black, or not your gender speaks to me of internalized discrimination. Now, I’m not saying my helpful employee doesn’t have a right to not enjoy Magic’s Pawn, but the reason he objected rubs me the wrong way.

But it’s not like there aren’t certain kinds of characters I find difficult to empathize with. For instance, in The Midnight Guardian, one half of the lead couple concludes that love makes life worth living. I quite agree. He then goes to clarify that it is sexual love makes life worth living. Obviously, the entire book and especially that character lost huge brownie points with me. I’m trying to think of other traits that immediately turn me off, but they are almost always given to characters we’re meant not to identify or empathize with. And there are characters I find it easier to empathize with. For instance, nearly all queer folk go through a fairly terrifying period in their teenage years that cisgendered and straight folk don’t, so it’s a bit easier for me, as an ace woman, to understand the trials of a teenage character trying to come to terms with their sexuality and coming out to their family. And so on and so forth with my ethnicity, my nationality, my heritage, and my gender. But that doesn’t keep me from identifying with and empathizing with characters who aren’t like me. That’s the magic of reading; it allows you to experience things far removed from your experience, letting us see the whole, beautiful spectrum of the human experience.

In short; no excuse, BAM! employee, no excuse.

This week, I read The Paladin by C. J. Cherryh, which… well, let me put it this way, it’s going to be a first for this blog. That review is next week, as I’d like to increase my buffer to make up for the inevitable lack of reading during my first two weeks of school; I have a wedding to attend and then there’s Dragon*Con. (I will try and go to a book panel for y’all, but let’s be honest–most of the Heroes and Firefly cast will be there, as will Sean Astin. It’s going to be tight.) I started The Irresistible Henry House yesterday and made great headway, so I ought to finish that tonight.

I totally dropped the ball on giveaways, didn’t I? My most humble apologies, dear reader. Trisha is giving away a copy of Dracula, My Love at eclectic/eccentric, which closes on Friday. And I’m giving away Shadow of the Swords, The Burning City, and an advanced review copy of The Transformation of Bartolomew Fortuno.

I mentioned on Twitter last night that I’m thinking of hosting a Narnia Week, per the advice of a good friend. My idea is this–Monday through Friday, we would read The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, and The Last Battle. The Horse and His Boy and The Magician’s Nephew would be optional reads for the weekend. Ideally, I’d like to host this the week of November 29, Lewis’ birthday, but over Thanksgiving might be a better idea. (Although, I’m probably going to go see Tangled twice and that’s NaNoWriMo.) Any thoughts?

Are there some characters you find it harder or easier to identify or empathize with?

16 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Empathy

  1. YES to Narnia week! Huge enormous yes! I will totally play along if I am not (forlorn hope) busy getting a job and relocating for it. I have so much love in my heart for those books.

    I find it very hard to empathize with sort of alienated narrator characters–Ignatius J. O’Reilly, Enderby, that rotten kid in JD Salinger. I want to slap them in the face and demand they explain to me why NOTHING EVER PLEASES THEM. I don’t mind characters who are isolated, even isolated by choice, but I hate it when a character won’t take pleasure in anything ever.

    • I have the same pet peeve as Jenny re: far too angsty characters!

      I’m confused as to the employee…was he suggesting the book because the main character was gay, or suggesting that you avoid the book? Sorry-I haven’t had all my tea yet!

  2. Bah, that employee, quite honestly, should be reprimanded. At my bookstore about half the staff were not straight and they were always hurt by such comments when customers made them. His attitude may very well offend or harm a customer in the future. His prejudices need to be kept to himself while working.

    If you do want to start Lackey, do Magic’s Pawn. It was my first Lackey and what made me want to read more. It’s by no means perfect (the edges are quite rough), but it’s an easy entrance into Lackey’s world and the characters were quite human (especially considering that it was written in the tail-end of the homophobic ’80s). The story is mostly about Vanyel and his movement to manhood. His coming of age is both in regards to his sexual orientation, mental maturation, and duty. I haven’t read it in some years, but I remember it being quite good from my teenage perspective. After the Magic series, if you want to read more, you should start at the beginning of the Valdemar books (there’s a timeline in each book you can follow, though I advise saving the “pre-histories” for last).

    Honestly, I keep meaning to read Lackey’s older stuff again, but haven’t gotten around to it. And I have no excuse, because it’s all very quick to read!

  3. Thanks for the posting about my giveaway! And I couldn’t agree more about relating to characters. I’ve never understood how a character can be unrelatable just because one tiny part of them – like sexuality, gender, race, etc. – is different from you. Are you kidding? I can identify with an Asian male homosexual who hates reading if the character is written well. Heck, I can identify with a serial killer if done properly. Perhaps that just makes me strange. It’s about the whole package with a character, and about how the author portrays the character. Great post!

  4. First, I’d be up for the Narnia week. I will admit they are not my most favorite of books but I feel I didn’t give them a fair chance and should re-read and finish the series with an open mind.

    And since we are on the topic of open minds — WOW on that employee.

  5. My problem with the employee isn’t so much that he had a problem with a gay character (because as we all know, there’s never going to be shortage of close-minded and prejudiced people out there) but that he felt the need to share that with someone as part of his JOB. There’s no place for that. He has no idea what the reader’s stance is on anything (as was OBVIOUS from your case) and is just as likely to offend as not. Bleh. I would have probably walked away from that store without buying anything at all.

    As for characters I can’t empathize with? Ones who make their own problems. I read one novel recently where the main character was a teen who drank and did drugs (sometimes with her mom) and then, when she was an adult, talked about what a bad mom she had but took absolutely no responsibility for her own part in the decisions. Annoying!

    • Yeah, I hate it when people assume like that. Can’t you simply say you recommend the other title instead? Goodness.

      Characters like that can be so annoying. I think that’s why I steer away from contemporary YA fiction- not that’s an epidemic, but I tend to see them there.

  6. “I find the idea that people can’t truly identify with someone not like them downright insulting to everyone’s intelligence.”

    Exactly! I couldn’t agree more. There was a wonderful post a while ago on a fantasy author’s blog (I know I wrote his name down somewhere, even because I meant to check out his stuff, but I can’t for the life of me remember where) where he explained why the fact that he writes gay characters and gay sex scenes is not supposed to alienate readers. And then there were a few comments with dudes going, “But as I’m straight, I just can’t relate at all to gay love stories! They do nothing at all for me and I find them boring!” Blah blah blah. It sort of got me wondering if that’s not just something that some straight dudes feel that they HAVE to say, because really… does the sexual orientation of the characters make THAT much of a difference in the end? Aren’t human emotions human emotions? Are they really devoid of imagination to such an extent that they can’t jump over that gap? If so, how can they even read fantasy to begin with? That kind of lack of empathy really makes no sense to me, unless all sorts of absurd fears about what enjoying a non-heterosexual love story might say about them are also at work.

    • It absolutely does not. And this is usually only straight guys- fandom produces mind-boggling amounts of gay fiction and they’re nearly all written by women of every orientation.

      I think you’re very right in that it boils down to insecurity- “if I can enjoy and appreciate a love scene between two gay characters, then I must be gay! And this is a big problem!”

  7. P.S. To be fair, I wouldn’t start with Magic’s Pawn either. It is the tiniest smidge narmy, as I recall. I’d start with some of her more light-hearted books.

  8. Sorry I’m so late to the discussion – I came to this after your post about reading The Shadow of the Lion.

    We have this thing at the moment (or, to be honest, have had for years) this assumption in fiction that boys don’t empathise with female characters, whereas girls will often empathise with male characters. I think Maureen Johnson wrote about this on her blog not so long ago – and I wonder whether it’s true, or whether it’s a construct of what society believes boys _ought_ to like. I do find the bookshop employee mentioning the main gay character as a reason for avoiding a book, particularly to a woman (who tend not to bothered so much about homosexuality anyway (and I know I’m generalising wildly here)) slightly bizarre. Perhaps he’d never read a book which had an explicitly gay character before?

    I have to say, as a straight white person, that I tend to assume characters in books are also straight and white unless told otherwise, but that doesn’t mean I don’t empathise with them if they’re not.

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