Tuesday 15 August 2023

A question of empathy - by Rowena House

A recent academic paper about empathy and the historian has set me thinking about empathy and the fiction writer, a complex topic embedded in our craft.

As writers, our capacity for empathy begs huge psychological questions about how we understand the feelings of others whose life experiences might well be profoundly different to our own.

Empathy also raises (perhaps more familiar) ethical questions about whose stories we get to write. and whether we have a duty to uncover subconscious biases which influence our creative processes. 

Basically, just because we care about someone else's story, and think we can write it well, doesn't mean we should.

Looking at these issues from a historian's perspective was instructive. So, for you reading pleasure, here is the link to the article by Dr Sarah Fox, a research associate at the University of Birmingham’s department of history. Do, please, take a look. It's the very definition of thought-provoking!


I'd love to have time to explore her findings for this post. Sadly, real life can't be put off. So intead (and based on her work being open source when properly credited) I've edited her research questionnaire down for space and replaced her key words ‘historian’ and ‘historical work’ with novelist and creative work.

I’ll leave these questions here for now, and return to them when I have some honest answers in relation to my seventeenth century witch trial work-in-progress, in which I'm trying to empathise with witch hunters as well as the persecuted. Exactly why I'm doing this gets to the nub of the story (I think).

Meanwhile, if anyone else fancied having a crack at answering one or more of these questions, I’m sure we could have a fascinating conversation about our replies. 


Questions derived from Dr Sarah Fox's paper Archival Intimacies: Empathy and Historical Practice in 2023, published by Cambridge University Presson behalf of the Royal Historical Society, 7 Aug 2023:

What is empathy in your opinion, within the context of your work as a novelist?

Is empathy a skill, a quality, or a virtue? Can you learn it?

How does empathy shape your research and the sources you work with?

What role do you think empathy plays in your writing processes?

What happens to creative work when empathy is absent? Does it matter?

Thank you very much for these questions, Dr Fox. You've got the neurons firing!


Have a happy (dry) rest of the summer if you can.


Twitter: @HouseRowena

Facebook: Rowena House Author

1 comment:

Nick Garlick said...

I believe empathy is a virtue that can most definitely be learned. By reading. By talking. By repeating - unthinkingly - prejudices instilled by upbringing and called to task for them.