By Rebecca Cleaver
Most people can recall a time when they have connected with someone over a book. The connections forged through literature transcend time and space. They create a rich tapestry through which people can discover a common language between not only the writer and themselves, but between themselves and other people. Few things are more indicative of our shared humanity than the emotions brought about by reading a really good book.
“I think what’s interesting about literature is that it is a gymnasium of empathy,” says writer and radio presenter Richard Glover. ”It’s almost impossible not to empathise with characters, even ones you don’t like. That is what’s powerful about fiction writing: it really trains you to be empathetic to other human beings, even when they are very different to you.”
Richard, along with author and journalist Mark Dapin and author and television presenter Gretel Killeen, will speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival about the role books have played in their lives.
Mark Dapin has a unique perspective on the strong emotions literature can bring up in people. He recalls attending a book club meeting shortly after the release of his novel King of the Cross. “One woman really despised the book,” he says. “She thought the book was disgusting, and the depth of her hatred for me… it was so intense and so personal. It was a unique experience. I kind of missed her when she didn’t come to the pub afterwards.”
For Gretel Killeen, buying a copy of Dr Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! for a friend’s 50th birthday made her reflect on the universality of a good book’s themes. “I think Dr Seuss is a brilliant philosopher, and I just love the way he blends philosophy with humour,” she says, adding that her friend loved the book, and had never really thought of the suitability of it for his age.
Gretel says many of her childhood books are still among her favourites. “I’m still enamoured with Pippi Longstocking. The parentless existence, the crazy animals, dressing the way you want. I loved her individuality and rebellion, and I still do.”
In contemplating the role of literature in bridging the gaps that separate people of different generations, geographies, and upbringings, Mark Dapin explains his goal as a writer. “In journalism and fiction, I try to give every character something to love. I try to find something good in the people I talk to and the people I create.”
His latest book, Spirit House, tells the heartbreaking story of a group of Australian POWs during the Second World War, forced into hard labour and mistreated by a corrupt commanding officer named Duffy. “I tried to make Duffy defensible. I want to try to make people empathise with apparently unsympathetic characters. It’s the way I see the world. I am much less judgmental than I ever was. I believe that most people, even people who commit terrible, evil deeds, often believe they are doing the right thing.”
Richard Glover agrees. He recalls at times wanting to weep with Anna Karenina over her ill-fated love affair, despite her being a rather unlikeable character. “She’s a bit of a stuck- up princess, really. And certainly she’s not like us at all. She’s a Russian aristocrat from another century, another time… but what is remarkable about fiction is that it overcomes all those things and it’s not about whether you like the character or you don’t like the character. Empathy is inevitable.”
Mark Dapin’s approach has seen many people misinterpret his character studies as glorifications of unethical behaviour. “It was interesting the way people read King of the Cross,” he says. “People thought I was trying to justify the main character’s actions. People said I was trying to make him attractive. But really, I was just trying to make him comprehensible.”
Gretel Killeen, who often discusses her personal life in books and on radio, believes that getting to the heart of a character’s weaknesses is an important vehicle for empathy. “Successful writing is all about connecting with an audience, and I think vulnerability is a very important point of contact,” she says.
Empathy, even when stirred by little more than the machinations of a piece of fiction, can have profound ramifications for humanity as a whole. Richard Glover recalls Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined as a turning point in his understanding of the power of good literature.
“The book is about how violence has declined in human societies over time. If we go back to the 14th Century it was horribly violent: bear-baiting and witch-dunking and people being hung in every town square… And Pinker says he is positive that a lot of the reason these things declined was the invention of the printing press and fictional writing. Once you read an imaginative account of a witch burning at the stake, and the flames setting the hair on fire, and the skin blistering…. once you read that over time it becomes impossible to participate in that kind of activity.”
The emotions evoked by good literature are not limited to our interactions with fictional characters. Often, one of the greatest joys of reading a book lies in the fact that someone else has read it, too.
For Richard Glover, realising that he and his wife had many of the same titles in their literature collections provided a wonderful book-end to the early days of their romance. “We had the thrill when we first moved in together of putting our books together and finding that we had two copies of everything,” he recalls.
At the end of the day, literature reminds us that we are not alone. Whether we are sharing in the emotions of a writer, a character, or a fellow reader, the power of empathy is proof that there is nothing we have felt that hasn’t been felt before, and won’t be felt again. For some, this is a reinforcement of our own insignificance. But for others, the solace this provides is truly valuable.
As Mark Dapin put its: “All good literature gives you comfort because it helps you realise that other people are the same as you. All good literature is about the truth, and the truths in the hearts of people. It makes you feel less alone at times when you might otherwise feel bereft.”