Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Eden Mills, Alissa York and the Brooklyn Bridge

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Tuesday, October 4th: Fourth Blog

Eden Mills has always been one of my favourite literary festivals. As a rookie, I can still admit to being a little star struck at the opportunity to hear Lorna Crozier, Dionne Brand, Priscila Uppal and John Valiant, not to mention be introduced to Alison Pick, Johanna Skibsrud and the legendary Leon Rooke. But when I think about the experience of Eden Mills, it’s not just the extraordinary quality of its writers. It’s not just the charming sincerity of the town, so determined to reduce its carbon footprint and be responsible to the planet. It’s the quality of the crowd. It’s the sense of informed community. Eden Mills has an ambiance unlike any other festival; it feels so welcoming, so open, so uniquely supportive.

I was lucky this year to share Eden Mills in the company of my new friend Alissa York, the author of Effigy and Fauna, who I met last year when we both read at the wonderful “Books and Brunch” series put on by book-lover extraordinaire, Shelley Macbeth, of Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge.

During our drive from Toronto, I asked Alissa Carl Oglesby’s question, explaining that it was both central to my current thinking and historically a struggle for me not to see writing as self-indulgent and decadent, that I always felt an overwhelming responsibility to have a “real” job like teaching that generated clear social worth. She gave me a most thoughtful and impassioned answer, affirming that to her mind, especially in our times, the making of literature was anything but decadent. It was something that gave hope to human survival because it was an art form capable of encouraging empathy, of making it possible for us to see beyond the limitations of our own lives and into the lives and needs of others.

In what seems at first to be a total contrast to that idyllic weekend at Eden Mills, this past weekend saw 700 peaceful democratic protestors arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. But perhaps it’s not a polar opposite after all. The Occupy Movement and the protests at the Toronto G20 in June of 2010 are essentially saying the same thing: we don’t all live in Eden Mills. In the growing gap between rich and poor, we all need to be encouraged to see into the disparity that exists in the lives and needs of others. Writing after the death of Jack Layton, on the brink of a future-defining provincial election, the Occupy Movement and the G20 continue to dance in my head beside Alissa’s art-affirming statement, making Carl Oglesby’s question even more pointed as I struggle with the daily construction of a novel that longs to understand all of the above.

This recombination leaves me asking a hybrid question: When the house continues to burn down around this novelist’s head, is the creation of empathy dispensation enough to continue to write a seriously funny novel about how ordinary people are moved to take extraordinary action?

I hope so.


Dear Reader,
Thank you for such a long and thoughtful answer. While I may be summoning angels to the head of a pin, and while I fully admit to having read none of the books you mention above, I will offer this response to the issues you raise, suggesting here that there seems to be some confusion between the concepts of empathy and sympathy

First of all, before addressing either term, I want to set my response in a personal context. Any "dispensation" I ask for myself as a writer of fiction, also comes after twenty-three years as a feminist teacher and union activist, comes at a time in my life where my disability is such that I can't walk more than a few blocks or stand for than five minutes. And that's on a good day. I mention these facts because I refuse to be compared to the able-bodied and at the same time want to be clear that I have not lived my life as an arm chair intellectual.

Using personal definitions again, sympathy to me is a flash of emotion, specific, limited and possibly fleeting and forgotten. Empathy, to me, has greater possibilities. It's seated deeper, both emotionally and intellectually. Whenever I saw teenagers begin to develop empathy it was always based on context, on a bridge between their lives and the lives of others. Empathy resonates with questions of fairness, and thus potentially may lead to the moral outrage that I so agree with you is often the basis for activism. As you put it, "the compulsion to act... arises from a sense of righteous anger, deeply held personal convictions and values and a strong sense of justice."

So where does a person get these things? How does someone get them that does not get them from family, the school system, or a faith group? I got mine from books, and let me be clear, from novels, not non-fiction. I'm glad nobody told Harriet Beecher Stowe or Dickens that literature had little power to make change. While I would agree with you that the canon of "great literature" may not be progressive, may in fact be largely reactionary, that doesn't mean we should throw all books out with bath water.

Literature is just one more tool in the hands of an activist writer, along with education, community organizing, protests, and grass roots networking. Perhaps we can agree that making change is as multi-facted as change itself?


Ah, at last Dorothy poses a "Seminal Question". Is the creation of empathy dispensation enough to engage in writing that is unlikely to generate collective action to overcome growing social injustice?

My answer? No! Of all things one can do to inspire and support action for an ecologically sustainable, more socially just world (putting out the fires ravaging the livelihoods of the poor), writing novels, even very good novels, would likely rank far down the list. Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" may be an exception, but I hazard that it doesn't qualify, since the latter half of the book is more an exposé than a novel.

While this is a strong stand, I hasten to say that I don't agree with the underlying premise of the question. What is the value of literature? The question implied the standard should be "what best contributes to social change." While laudable, I do not agree. More about that shortly. Lets address the issue of empathy first.

Steven Pinker in his new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” asserts that we are living in the middle of an “empathy craze.” As noted by David Brooks (a conservative columnist at the New York Times)in a recent column, many books have been written about it: “The Age of Empathy,” “The Empathy Gap,” “The Empathic Civilization,” “Teaching Empathy.” It is likely true that people who are empathetic are more sensitive to the perspectives and sufferings of others. But I agree with Brooks that the problem comes when we try to turn feeling into action.

Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action, or to defy authority, or prevents you from taking immoral action. Empathy may orient you toward moral action, but the evidence indicates that it doesn’t seem to help much when that action comes at a personal cost. Brooks cites Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at City University of New York, who summarized the research on the link between empathy and moral action this way: “These studies suggest that empathy is not a major player when it comes to moral motivation. Its contribution is negligible in children, modest in adults, and nonexistent when costs are significant.”

Other influences, which we think of as trivial, are much stronger — such as a temporary burst of positive emotion. However, as Prinz argues, empathy can also lead people astray from the underlying issues. In this media dominated world, empathy often influences people to care more about cute victims than ugly victims. It leads us to react to shocking incidents, like a hurricane, but not longstanding conditions, like global hunger or preventable diseases.

Empathy is insufficient because it often only generates moral emotions without helping us confront the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It tends to give us an illusion of moral progress, without the substance. Brooks suggests that teaching empathy may help schools and other institutions seem to be virtuous without inspiring people to risk controversy,hurting anybody’s feelings, or, heaven forbid, mobilising collective action to confront abuse of power.

People who actually take action for social change, like those inspiring people who started the Occupy Wall Street protest recently, (who have been pepper sprayed, arrested, harassed by police) often do so in groups. The motivation often springs from a sense deep moral outrage. Perhaps they feel for those who are suffering, but the compulsion to act, from what I read and observed while in New York recently, arises from a sense of righteous anger, deeply held personal convictions and values and a strong sense of justice.

In this light, empathy is, as Brooks asserts, more of a sideshow. It is far too limited a basis to offer "dispensation" for writers of literature to justify the social worth of their craft. While not a student of literature, my sense is that the basis of social value for good literature must be built on other pillars. I do not accept the premise that it is decadent or self indulgent for writers to produce good literature that does not inspire social action or personal change. If my assertion has any merit, I suggest we address a related but different Seminal Question. What is the redeeming social value of literature?
If writers want to actively contribute to social change, to achieve this laudable goal, their work needs to inspire, help people debate, understand, and act on their deepest convictions, emotions and values. Not many literacy novels do this. But there are many examples of what most of us would agree constitutes great literature that does not. For such literature, wherein arises the social value?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dorothy Ellen Palmer

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is the author of the novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books). She lives in Toronto.

Go to Dorothy Ellen Palmer’s Author Page