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The Writer’s Life by AG President Roxana Robinson

Reprinted from the Winter 2015 issue of the Authors Guild Bulletin

I teach a course in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Hunter College in New York. It’s called “Introduction to the Modern.” The title was given to me, but I’ve added a qualifier: The Role of Compassion.

It’s a wonderful class to teach. We read the canon: Flaubert, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Woolf, Wharton, Updike. We discuss voice, structure, cultural context—things you’d expect. But I also teach that one of the components of great literature is compassion. Homer, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Woolf all demand that we use our hearts as well as our minds.

This should be obvious, but somehow it’s not: the idea of compassion has become unfashionable. It’s gotten confused with sentimentality, though you English majors know the difference: sentimentality is emotion without responsibility; compassion is the recognition of shared humanity. Chalk and cheese. Sentimentality is superficial, easy listening that does nothing to expand our understanding. Compassion is quite different. Risky and exigent, it puts you inside someone else. This is one of literature’s greatest strengths. Even science has noticed: studies show that people who read literary novels have more empathy than those who don’t; this won’t surprise anyone who’s read Anna Karenina.

Great literature introduces us to other times and other cultures, to other races and other genders. It offers a broad range of knowledge, but also a broad range of feeling. It expands our emotional comprehension. When you realize that you are just like the 19th-century Russian character in Chekhov’s story—just as flawed, just as struggling, just as doomed, just as helpless, just as absurd and just as yearning—you expand your understanding of the world. Your feeling of judgment begins to crumble and fall away, and you stand exposed and humble. As you recognize yourself in others, you deepen your own humanity.

In my class we begin with Madame Bovary. Flaubert famously claimed to feel contemptuous of these petit bourgeois characters, and certainly Emma Bovary is a shallow, opportunistic creature. And yet. Flaubert was also famous for saying, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” When Emma runs at dawn through the dewy fields to meet Rodolphe, and arrives at his chateau, exuberant and happy and out of breath, “smelling like a spring morning, coming into his bedroom, ”it’s hard not to sympathize with her, or to feel that Flaubert didn’t. It’s hard to think that Flaubert didn’t sympathize with Emma’s father as he remembers his own wedding trip, his little wife seated behind him on his horse, her arm tucked around his waist.

We discuss the sources of empathy, what first evokes it for a character. One of our earliest views of Anna Karenina is at the train station, when she meets her brother: she puts her left arm around his neck and kisses him. That confident, tender and physical intimacy creates a brilliant image of the warmth and vitality of Anna, the woman we will come to know so well.

My students are smart and thoughtful, and they say things I haven’t thought of. Discussing tragedy one evening, I explained that historically it concerned monarchs and rulers, because their fates would reverberate throughout a whole country. We discussed the traditional definition of tragedy, how it derived from a tragic flaw, and moved toward self-knowledge. I asked them what roused their sense of compassion in Madame Bovary, and if they thought it was tragedy, since it was not about a monarch, and didn’t move toward self-knowledge.

One student said that she felt most compassionate about Emma’s family, her poor cuckolded and devoted husband, her pathetic little daughter. “I feel the most strongly for them,” she said. “Because in the end, our kingdom is our family. Those are the people who depend on us the most, to whom we owe the most care and attentiveness. So to me this book is a tragedy, and Emma’s fall destroys her kingdom.”

And to me, this is why we should read great books, and teach them, and listen to our students. Because of just this kind of small revelation, evoking our own humility and admiration. I’m grateful to Gustave Flaubert for his beautiful and mysterious novel, and to all of you literature students, who read these books, turn these things over in your minds, and produce moments of compassion and brilliance for the rest of us to marvel over, and savor.