Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Emotional Intelligence When Writing

At the weekend I watched The Social Network. It's about the founding of Facebook, and in particular the suing of Mark Zuckerberg by various people who felt that they had a claim in being one of the founders.  Mark Zuckerberg is shown as being highly intelligent, a computer genius and - as many people in the film point out - a complete asshole.  He's an asshole because he lacks any awareness of how other people feel.  He lacks any emotional intelligence.

I've met writers like that.  They have usually had extremely successful careers in something science or computer related. They've now retired and have decided to write a novel.  They write one.  They send it out; it gets rejected.  They methodically send it to every agent and publisher; everyone rejects it.  This, one suspects, is the first time these people have had a rejection.  They don't understand why.  

They lack emotional intelligence.  It doesn't matter if you're writing a scientific paper - in fact, empathising all over the place would be a hindrance - but it does matter in a work of fiction. Writing fiction is all about the ability to put yourself in someone else's imaginary shoes, understand how they tick, and then convey that to a reader.  

The saddest thing about an author who lacks emotional intelligence is that they lack the emotional intelligence to know it.  There's an example of this in action over on How Publishing Really Works where author John Streby reacts to Jane Smith's review of his self-published novel The Devil Won't Care.  

The worst example I've come across was a novel which had the hero having sex with a woman who had been brain-damaged, so now had the mental age of an 8 year old child.  She was portrayed as a trusting, simple, innocent child. I protested that that was like paedophilia.  The author didn't agree - the woman was in her 20s so well over the age of consent, so it was fine as far as they were concerned.  I don't know where the law would stand on the issue but I knew where I as a reader stood - it was morally wrong and definitely non-hero action.  

I'm not sure why people who lack emotional intelligence want to write fiction in the first place. I've heard one EI-less author announce that they didn't bother reading novels as they were a waste of time, which is a legitimate opinion, but doesn't explain why anyone else should waste their time by reading that author's novel. Another was writing short stories aimed at the women's magazine market, because this was a market that paid, but couldn't understand why stories featuring women who were washed-up, shrivelled shells once past 35 had never got published.   

There are definitely genres where EI can matter less - thrillers, for example. Plot, pace and setting can compensate for cardboard characters speaking wooden dialogue.  But overall, fiction needs some EI to work.  



JO said...

I've also seen The Social Network - and decided Mark Zuckerburg had Aspberger's Syndrome - which would leave him unable to empathise. No , he wasn't hugely likeable, but his lack of insight may not be entirely his 'fault'. And yes - he'd have written a rubbish novel.

Sarah Duncan said...

JO, I thought it looked like Aspberger's too. Which doesn't mean he isn't brilliant at what he does, but let's hope he never tries writing a novel.

Sally Zigmond said...

I am very well acquainted with Asperger's Syndrome. It's in the family. Whilst I agree that there are individuals such as Mark Zuckerberg who are brilliant with computers, science, statistics and systems but pretty hopeless at human interaction (see The Extreme Male Brain by Simon Baron Cohen) I don't think many of them would even think of writing a novel. They would consider novels irrelevant and baffling. A close family member of mine wonders why anyone in their right mind would want to read anything that isn't true.

I totally agree that empathy is at the heart of fiction writing but throwing in Asperger's Syndrome only muddies the water.

I think something else is at work when many would-be novelists seem blissfully unaware of how what they write is perceived by others. I can't put my finger on it. But it's a kind of arrogance--something people with AS don't usually manifest. I think of AS people more as shuffling boffins.

Sarah Duncan said...

I suppose it's all more different strokes for different folks. Some people's minds work in different ways, whatever labels we put on them.

I think sometimes people appear arrogant when they're actually ignorant - I met someone who was surprised I couldn't 'knock out ' a novel in a weekend, because he could write a 1000 word paper in a couple of hours. I asked how long it took him to write his PhD thesis. 5 years was the answer. To which I said - oh well, I'm sure you can work out how the rest of that conversation played out!