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Empathy and the Novel$

Suzanne Keen

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780195175769

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195175769.001.0001

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(p.169) Appendix A Collection of Hypotheses about Narrative Empathy

(p.169) Appendix A Collection of Hypotheses about Narrative Empathy

Empathy and the Novel
Oxford University Press

While several of the hypotheses confute one another (as for instance in the directionality of empathy and character identification), I include both formulations to indicate possible directions for research. In its specificity, this collection of possibilities marks a significant advance over earlier broad assertions about narrative empathy that take the form of un-testable generalizations.

Proposals about Narrative Empathy

  • Empathy for fictional characters may require only minimal elements of identity, situation, and feeling, not necessarily complex orrealistic characterization;

  • Character identification often invites empathy, even when the character and reader differ from each other in all sorts of practical and obvious ways;

  • Spontaneous empathy for a fictional character’s feelings opens the way for character identification;

  • Empathetic responses to fictional characters and situations occur more readily for negative feeling states, whether or not a match in details of experience exists;

  • Empathy with characters doesn’t always occur as a result of reading an emotionally evocative fiction;

  • The capacity of novels to invoke readers’ empathy may change over time (and some novels may only activate the empathy of their first, immediate audience);

  • Empathy for a fictional character need not correspond with what the author appears to set up or invite;

  • (p.170) Situational empathy, which responds primarily to aspects of plot and circumstance, involves less self-extension in imaginative role taking and more recognition of prior (or current) experience;

  • Readers’ empathy for situations depicted in fiction may be enhanced by chance relevance to particular historical, economic, cultural, or social circumstances;

  • Generic differences are likely to play a role in inviting (or retarding) readers’ empathic responses;

  • (Miall and Kuiken) Unusual or striking representations in the literary text promote foregrounding and open the way to empathetic reading;

  • (Bourg) Empathizers are better readers, because their role-taking abilities allow them to comprehend causal relations in stories;

  • Readers’ perception of a text’s fictionality plays a role in subsequent empathetic response, by releasing readers from the obligations of self-protection through skepticism and suspicion;

  • (Miall) Readers’ empathy could producer verifiable results in the beliefs and actions of populations of actual readers;

  • (Hoffman) Novel reading may participate in the socialization and moral internalization required for the transmutation of empathic guilt into prosocial action;

  • Though a key ingredient of successful fictional world-making, authors’ empathy does not always transmit to readers without interference;

  • (Taylor) Novelists as a group may be more empathetic than the general population;

  • Fiction writing may cultivate novelists’ role-taking skills and make them more habitually empathetic;

  • Authors’ empathy can be devoted to socially undesirable ends;

  • Empathic distress at feeling with a character whose actions are at odds with a reader’s moral code may be a result of successfully exercised authorial empathy;

  • Empathic inaccuracy may contribute to a reader’s strong sense that the author’s perspective is simply wrong;

  • Both authors’ empathy and readers’ empathy have rhetorical uses, which become more readily to notice when they conflict in instances of empathic inaccuracy;

  • Concord in authors’ empathy and readers’ empathy could be a motivating force to move beyond literary response to prosocial action;

  • Bounded strategic empathy operates with an in-group, stemming from experiences of mutuality, and leading to feeling with familiar others;

  • Ambassadorial strategic empathy addresses chosen others with the aim of cultivating their empathy for the in-group, often to a specific end;

  • (p.171) Broadcast strategic empathy calls upon every reader to feel with members of a group, by emphasizing common vulnerabilities and hopes (universalizing);

  • (Hogan) Empathy for group members emerging from categorical identity with a group does not, on its own, lead to an ethics of compassion.