Negative Empathy

Should writers of fiction review the work of colleagues? I avoid it personally, and my rational for doing is the basis for my side of a debate that was part of the CBC Literary Smackdown series recently. The other side of the issue was taken by esteemed Victoria-based novelist and nonfiction writer Robert Weirsma, who also writes a lot of fine reviews.

You can find our respective essays on the topic here, along with a link to the debate as broadcast on Sheila Rogers show Next Chapter.

I enjoyed the discussion because I enjoy talking to Robert. But I knew going in that arguing my side of the resolved was a thankless proposition. That's because I was arguing that the prevalence of competitiveness and envy in our culture and economy - magnified incredibly, in my view, by the migration of that culture and economy from offline to online - makes the review that one writer writes of another writer highly suspect. Consciously or unconsciously, in other words, insider reviews (positive or negative) end up being strategic, designed in their subtle and not-so-subtle ways to serve the purposes of the reviewer. Better that the writer withdraw from this toxic maeltsrom of mutual appraisal and measurement (as exemplified in our hysterical interest in our own online profiles) and leave reviewing to "professionals", people who write from within literature but not within the writing community.

Robert's argument for reviewing was from the standpoint of empathy. As a novelist, he could empathize more with the writer being reviewed than could a non-writer. Empathy, in this analysis, provides the novelist/reviewer with insights into the writing process and the significance of the literary accomplishment as it's ultimately delivered (or not) on the page.

That point is interesting because it shows that Robert and I come to our respective conclusions in response to our observation of what are closely related human capacities. Empathy, after all, is the mother of envy.

Here's Martin Amis putting his finger directly on the button in The Pregnant Widow:

"It was only Nicholas, his male flesh and blood, that Karl really envied. And envy, the dictionary suggests, takes us by a knight’s move to empathy. From L. invidere “regard maliciously,” from in- into + videre “to see.” Envy is negative empathy. Envy is empathy in the wrong place at the wrong time."

That's a very powerful idea: that "to see into" someone (their work, their tastes and tendencies, their condition) might "by a knight's move" lead us to "regard maliciously", wanting what the other has and quite possibly wishing them ill.

Powerful, but as I said, thankless. Who wants to hear that? It self-recriminates. And since we prize independence of mind and the idea of personal autonomy perhaps above all other things in our culture, that very idea that we are vainly comparing ourselves to others and finding ourselves wanting is bitterly distasteful.

Of course, my whole argument was also an abstraction. I wasn't saying Robert specifically was envious and therefore a strategic reviewer. I was making a point that is as inwardly directed as it is outwardly.

In an interesting Facebook disscussion that sparked to life after Canada Writes posted the essays, the downsides of taking my position were immediately plain, as I was asked to produce my evidence and provide an example from Robert's reviewing of the envy that I felt prohibited the novelist/reviewer from effectively reviewing a colleagues work.

Fair play. I was in the realm of abstraction. And while I won't take on Robert's work, I'll happily take on my own. Consider this review I wrote of Jason Anderson's 2006 novel Showbiz, published by ECW. It ran in the Literary Review of Canada, and I now regret writing it. Not because I don't stand by the points I made, but because I can hear my own strategic positioning in it. I was writing about celebrity myself quite a lot at that time. (The Blue LIght Project was in the works.) So I had criticisms of Anderson's approach. Far more important is the fact that Anderson and I were doing the same thing at the time. Literarily speaking, we were after the same prize. We were undifferentiated competitors.

Call me a wimp, then, but I still feel icky about that review. Maybe I even withdrew from reviewing books by colleagues because of it. But the story ends well, because in a turn worthy of, I don't know, Flaubert, my own 2006 novel, Story House, was then bitterly trashed and stomped only six months later *in the same publication* by a reviewer named Adele Freedman.

Story House is about architecture. Freedman is an architecture critic. And she tore me a new egress, to put it politely.

Let's agree to call that karma.

 

Posted: Friday, Dec. 30, 2011 12:49pm