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“Global Empathy”: The Case for Literary Fiction in Troubled Times

Image – iStockphoto: Inner Vision

‘Get the Message Across More Forcefully’

Last week’s AWP conference—the Association of Writers and Writing Programs [1] (February 8-11)—was the usual sea of campus-based students and faculty members, university presses, plus assorted services for publishers and authors.

Early estimates were of some 12,000 people being in attendance. The book fair area of booths and tables was said to have more than 850 outfits represented. And in roughly 550 sessions, attendees heard and debated issues, many of them based in questions of diversity. I wrote an advance piece [2] at Publishing Perspectives on the program’s stated mission of inclusiveness.

Being set as it was in Washington, D.C., however, the political nature of so many of its admirable points of support for writerly egalitarianism was heightened. Some of the attendees participated in demonstrations of their political leanings. I’d guess that very few sessions went by without some mention, pro or con, of the White House administration a few blocks away.

From the hotel, I could see the top of the Washington Monument and the Capitol—they seemed farther apart than in the past.

I was on a panel called Current Trends in Literary Publishing [3], a session that’s put together and moderated annually at AWP by Jeffrey Lependorf of CLMP, the Community of Magazines and Presses dedicated to literary work and to literary journals in particular. With us were Katie Freeman of Penguin Random House’s Riverhead Books; Dawn Davis of HarperCollins’ Amistad; Literary Hub’s Jonny Diamond; and Michael Reynolds of the independent publisher Europa Editions.

It was Reynolds who, in reminding us that Europa Editions was originally founded in Italy, told the audience that current events are causing houses like his to reflect on why they choose to publish literary fiction. His house has a Turkish author, for example, who’s currently jailed by the regime there, as are many in publishing and journalism. And as the pressures of nationalism increase in many parts of the world, including the States, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, France, what is it about serious fiction that seems to resonate so strongly for so many?

“What about current events,” Reynolds asked, “makes it important to publish literary fiction?

“Do we need to provide more context?” he asked. “Do we need to frame our publishing program differently in order to get the message across more forcefully in this moment?

“In publishing literary fiction,” Reynolds said, “I think we all know that reading fiction—reading fiction in general—is good for our empathy. And I think a publishing program can think about social empathy, and global empathy.”

Several of us on the panel would go on to seize on that phrase Reynolds had given us, “global empathy.” My own key message to the event was very close to his but with that usual provocateur angle: I urged the room of several hundred people to take their belief in literary fiction—and especially in its peculiar capacity and internationalism to promote “global empathy”—and begin to speak more loudly, more proudly about it. I see this political era as a stark opportunity to demonstrate literary’s importance.

And that brings me to my provocation for you today.

Is It Time for Literary To Promote Itself?

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

In the past, we’ve had discussions here at Writer Unboxed about literary fiction, of course. We’re a disparate group and many engaged with WU are genre writers, while many others work in and/or revere literary fiction.

There long have been unhelpful perceptions of adversarial relationships between genre writers and literary writers.

While many genre writers will say they feel looked down on by literary writers, the most rational response I normally hear is that it’s not the literary writers who cast aspersions on genre writers (if anyone does), but their readers, some of them caught up in the always-politicized world of academia. And what I hear most frequently from literary writers is that they’d kill for their genre colleagues’ sales.

My own appeal to the literary authors and fans in the room was that we need to get past the delicacies of how we speak of this. For a long time, literary people and publishers have shied from calling literary fiction a genre because it treats such a wide range of subjects and tone and technique that it tends to defy a stable identity. I think it’s time we get over that and simply call it a genre unto itself, albeit a big-church genre that embraces an ecumenical reach.

And in talking of literary’s “global empathy,” Reynolds and the rest of us on the panel weren’t looking to promote explicitly political literary work.

His point—like mine—was that simply writing seriously (which doesn’t exclude humor!) about human experience, as the best literary fiction does, takes us past the provincialism of our own personalities. Literature’s range, that ecumenical respect for all comers, means a chance to stare down nationalism, xenophobia, isolationism: to learn and know each other in the gravitational safety of literary fiction’s curious appeal.

I do think that much good genre work can approach and achieve “global empathy” in many ways. I believe, however, that this is the special effect of the best literary fiction and I’d like to see those who write it, read it, and support it, rise to the stress of these combative times with a firmer stance. I’d like to see some defense of literary.

Global empathy is one of the best hopes each of us has right now to hang onto international understanding interrupted by chaotic governance and worldwide respect challenged by ham-handed, border-busy intimidation. I’ll take up my post where there are no walls. And I think I’ll find a lot of literary fiction people there with me.

How do you feel about this? Can you understand a ‘global empathy’ that’s inherent in the best literary work? And do you feel that the literary fiction community could do a better job of standing up for itself? 

About Porter Anderson [4]

@Porter_Anderson [5] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [6], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [7] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [8]