Wednesday, 27 November 2013

ABC blog: E

See previous entries A B C D

E is for empathy. This is a relatively new topic for me. When I wrote my book The Rhetoric of Character I discussed interiority as a narrative device, exploring interior monologue and Erlebte Rede (another E) and free indirect discourse, which is the same as Erlebte Rede, although some narratologists would insist that it isn't. 

Some years ago I discovered cognitive literary criticism, which was a revelation. It uses ideas from cognitive psychology to explain why we read fiction and why we care about fictional characters who are nothing but a bit ink on paper. Empathy plays an important role since it encourages us to contemplate what other people feel. In real life, empathy is an essential social skill. People who for some reason lack empathy have problems interacting with other people. We may misjudge other people, hurt them and make really fatal mistakes. By reading fiction, we can train our empathic skills without taking any risks. The character will not get hurt if we misunderstand them, and the world will not end because we could not predict someone's intentions. And we can always go back and re-read, to understand it better. The more we read the better we understand how other people feel and think. Paradoxically, books that do not portray interiority can sometimes provide even better training because we actually need to make an effort to understand how they feel rather than being told. 

Empathy does not develop fully until a relatively late stage. Young children, age three-four, can understand how other people think: it is called theory of mind and is another fascinating concept. But understanding other people's feelings does not come until late adolescence. We often hear and say that teenagers are self-centred and don't care about other people's feelings. There is a very clever explanation why this is so and should be so. Don't scold your teenager for being selfish: it is vital for their survival. 

Most children's and young adult literature shows characters who learn to interact with other people. Therefore I find that cognitive criticism is particularly relevant for children's literature studies.

When I started working on my cognitive project and claimed that reading fiction is good for your brain, people would ask: “Can you prove it?” I had to admit that I couldn't, but that I believed science would prove it very soon. And it did.

So E is also for readers' engagement, and it is for emotions as represented in fiction and as experienced vicariously by readers. E is also for evolution because it explains why storytelling was beneficial for our ancestors.

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