When I first heard all the terrific buzz about Mitchell’s book, By Fire, By Water, I knew I had to read it. What I didn’t know was that I would fall in love with the story and the writing, and then actually meet Mitchell via social networking. The intensity in Mitchell’s face is more than just a look caught on camera, it reveals the soul of a master researcher. Writing historical fiction can be daunting, and far too often details are either simplified or inaccurate—but not so with Mitchell’s stunning debut. By Fire, By Water is masterfully crafted and painstakingly researched. The characters have breath and blood and believability, and the imagery is vivid. I urge you to read it and see what I mean.
As if being an award-winning writer isn’t enough, Mitchell is also a pilot, screenwriter, and a classical and jazz flautist.
I recently invited Mitchell to be my guest on Bravo, and I’m delighted that he accepted. So please welcome the very talented Mitchell James Kaplan as he shares his thoughts on a thought-provoking topic.
Fiction and Empathy
Thank you so much, Beth, for having me on your wonderful blog. I feel honored.
The other day a college student asked me, “What, in your opinion, is the most important personal quality a writer can possess?”
I might have replied, “The ability to work hard without a boss,” or “a love of words.” Those qualities are certainly important, even necessary. What I said, though, was “empathy.”
He looked down, pursing his lips, and raised his eyes again. “What about Borges? What about Calvino? Are their books so full of empathy?”
“They’re more cerebral,” I admitted. “But you didn’t ask Borges. You asked me.”
“Well, what if you aren’t blessed with an extraordinary ability to empathize? Does that mean you can’t be a good writer?”
“I believe empathy is learned,” I told him
This is not an observation about psychology but about the power of the human imagination. I gave him an exercise. “Read the stories in people’s faces. You’ll discover worlds of feeling that were unfamiliar to you.”
In my view, the ability to imagine ourselves into others’ lives is what makes us human. The more we develop it, the more human we become. And just as empathy is a function of the human imagination, the failure to feel for others is a failure of the human imagination.
Computers, it can be argued, are capable of thought. They can play chess and win at “Jeopardy.” But while some clever A.I. scientist may come up with a way to simulate emotion, no one will ever convince me that computers are capable of compassion. That’s because computers have no imagination.
When Shakespeare, through the mouth of Hamlet, tells us that the purpose of theater is to “hold a mirror up to nature,” he is stating an aesthetic credo. The point of the play, and more generally of narrative, is not to call attention to the writer’s style or cleverness. It is to depict the world, and more specifically, the human world. (By “nature,” Shakespeare did not mean waterfalls and national parks.) The Bard knew that imagination and emotion, as well as intellect, are the salient features of that human landscape. Just think of his characters – Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet. All of them possess prodigious imaginative, intellectual, and emotional resources. That is what makes them memorable.
The novel is the greatest tool mankind has devised for developing the ability to empathize. Charles Dickens knew this. Writing about the condition of the poor in nineteenth century England, bringing his characters to life with emotion as well as intellect, he changed the world. For the middle class, the downtrodden became not just others, but full-blooded human beings. Changes in the economic and legal structures of British society ensued.
Similarly, Doestoevsky and Tolstoy humanized the Russian other for Western Europe. More recently, Mishima, Kawabata, and Arthur Golden opened windows onto the Japanese soul. Through literary characters, cultures and subcultures communicate their humanity. While envy, greed, and ignorance may bring us to the brink of war, our literary conversation delivers understanding and, in the best circumstances, peace.
In America today, novels continue to educate and entertain by extending our ability to feel for others whose lives might seem impossibly different or remote. What is it like to grow up as the daughter of people who, due to mental illness or just plain meanness, are incapable of love? Is there hope for such a girl? Beth Hoffman leads us into that girl’s world in her enchanting “Saving CeeCee Honeycut.” Why did a powerful Spanish courtier, who faced enormous personal issues, decide to risk his reputation and career by financing Christopher Columbus’s voyage of discovery in 1492? I have tried to recreate that courtier’s world in my first novel, “By Fire, By Water.”
When I read certain eighteenth and nineteenth century authors – for example, Austen, Dickens, or Hardy – I have the impression that either people felt more deeply in those days or writers were less afraid to emphasize their characters’ emotions. While I would hesitate to explain this using cliches about so-called movements like Romanticism or Modernism, I think it would be fair to say that during the first part of the twentieth century, an emphasis on irony became fashionable while strongly empathetic characters fell into disfavor. This change was in part a healthy reaction to “sentimentalism.”
Sentimentalism is not the same thing as empathy. Sentimentalism is simplistic and inauthentic. Human lives are rich, complex, and ultimately unfathomable.
We fancy ourselves rational, but a great deal of what we feel and do is not governed by rules of logic. Our emotions – our longings, anxieties, and moments of ecstatic contemplation – seem to spring from somewhere deeper or higher or elsewhere. Why, after all, do humans feel love or depression? In a perfectly rational world, all the biologically necessary functions (eating, reproducing, etc.) could take place without any subjective experience at all. The challenge, for the novelist, is to convey the vast tangle of human experience even while molding it within a dramatic structure that gives it shape and suggests meaning.
Please visit Mitchell’s website HERE.
You can also find him on Twitter @mitchelljkaplan and on Facebook.