Sketches, New and Old was Mark Twain's fifth book, collecting a bunch of his comedy pieces. As the title suggests, it's got some stuff that hadn't previously been collected along with some items that had already appeared in his first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Stories.

When I reviewed the frog book a few months ago I wanted to discuss what separates the funny from the unfunny. So I posted some unfunny jokes people had made, not mentioning any names, and analyzed what the anonymous quipsters seemed to be shooting for, where they fell short and so forth. This made several people upset (though they wouldn't tell me so for a few days). I thought, "Oh, crap, did I say something hurtful?" and double-checked to make sure I hadn't insulted anyone. But what I found when I looked back was pretty innocuous. I'd stuck to critiquing the work, not critiquing the soul. And yet people still took offense, and apparently I was expected to apologize. But I didn't think I'd done anything wrong, so it seemed dishonest to apologize anyway. There was some back and forth for a while and then it died down.

The point of this story is that my empathy sucks. I used to think I was a reasonably empathic person — hey, I'm a writer, I have to plan things out from all sorts of different people's perspectives to make a plot, etc. — but it's become clear that I'm totally not. The brouhaha over the frog book is a perfect example: people explained the reasons they were upset, but their emotional logic wasn't the same as mine, so I couldn't translate: I wouldn't have been hurt had I been in their shoes, so why were they? And the thing is, my first response to this revelation is to think, okay, I've been making the mistake of assuming other people think and feel the way I do when clearly they don't, so instead of projecting my mindset onto them, I should accept that we're fundamentally opaque to one another. But wait a minute! THAT'S NOT TRUE! Some people seem to have this ability to comprehend foreign emotional logic. I don't put a ton of stock in all the little personality tests floating around the net, but a while back an empathy test was bouncing around on ifMUD and I was astonished to see people coolly answering "yes" to questions like "I can tune into how someone else feels rapidly and intuitively." That strikes me as arrogant — but then, I'm sure there are some to whom a "yes" answer to something like "I can write a grammatically correct sentence rapidly and intuitively" would seem just as arrogant.

And the thing is — it seems I don't even have any empathy for myself. One reason it's been so long since my last Calendar entry is that personal stuff has come up in my life that I thought I was prepared for and then turned out to be devastated and heartbroken by. Heck, take the issue with the jokes: not too long after the whole frog book debacle, people were making jokes on the MUD as they are wont to do, and after a string of quips by different people, someone declared, "[name] wins." And I thought, "Hey, wait — that's completely obnoxious." Suddenly it's a competition rather than a collaboration, and a self-appointed judge has rendered a verdict. But... how different is that from the frog book article? To me it's different, because in my piece no names are used, and I'm talking about good and bad instead of winner and loser... but it's close enough that I can totally see how someone could have the same reaction to my article as I have to "[name] wins." That is, now I can see it. After the fact. The same way that those plots I talked about are largely based on careful observation of people's past behavior... and the luxury of what Julian Boyd called a world-to-word direction of fit. I have perfect empathy for my characters because they react however I say. But for actual people, practically none. I might as well have Asperger's.

Anyway, the Twain book's pretty funny.

Return to the Calendar page!