On The Novelist’s Empathy

Over at the Guardian blog Natasha Walter examines the work of several recent novelists who have attempted to get into the mind of terrorists: Salman Rushdie with Shalimar the Clown, Martin Amis with “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta,” and John Updike with the very imaginatively titled Terrorist:

But John Updike, like Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis, is attempting to give you what is in a putative terrorist’s mind as he looks into the eyes of potential victims. I can’t even imagine how difficult that must be artistically, and I can see that it is also difficult politically. Whether a writer chooses to show a terrorist as motivated by a hatred of American foreign policy, or by nothing but religious fervour, or by purely worldly disappointments, or by nihilistic love of death, he or she has entered an ongoing political debate.

If that makes things hard for the writer, it also makes things hard, in a different way, for the reader. On the one hand we are used to this being political territory, but on the other we want something very different from a novel than what we get from the newspapers: we want imaginative understanding, not political positions; we want to get close to a fictional individual rather than stand in judgment over a real group; we want the challenge of speculation rather than the reassurance of certainty. We want art, not news, at a time when news seems to be drowning out art.

Walter says she was disappointed by all three works, because “research has replaced empathy.” I find myself largely in agreement with her, with one exception: I think that out of the three (Amis, Updike, Rushdie) the only one who has pulled it off is Rushdie–and coincidentally, he’s the only one who has actually had any brush with real terrorists.