Writers as Readers

Question: Are you concerned about internalizing and reiterating the work of other writers?

Francine Prose: You know, I’ve often heard writers, actually not writers, people who want to be writers say, oh I can’t possibly read when I’m writing because I’m afraid that it will rub up off on me and I’ll start to write. And I always think, oh how terrifying, I might sound like Tolstoy or Chekhov or, oh no. No I don’t think that. Certainly, I think, when you start out writing, when anybody starts out writing, you start out imitatively. There’s writers you admire and you start out consciously or unconsciously imitating those writers but eventually you grow out of that and develop your own sensibility, really. So in terms of research for nonfiction books, fortunately or unfortunately, I don’t have that great of memory. Certainly not anymore so I’m never worried about remembering too much. That doesn’t happen.

Like every writer, I had a great high school English teacher. But I had a really bad junior high school English teacher, I mean, she wasn’t bad. She was probably great. I just didn’t like her. And she assigned us to copy over word for word a Chekhov, a short Chekhov story. It’s the one where the guy is talking to the horse. He tells his horse the whole story. And so we had to copy it over. And we were all just in a rage about it. What a waste of our time. Actually I think it was very useful. And in fact, when I was writing Reading Like a Writer, in which there’s huge blocks of quotes from other writers and because I have no technological ability whatsoever, I couldn’t figure out how to scan anything. So in some cases I had to type whole pages of other writers into the manuscript. So and I would notice my writing would get briefly better after I had copied, literally copied, I mean copying this 181 word sentence from Virginia Woolf, my writing sounded a little bit more like Virginia Woolf’s afterwards which is a good thing. So I think that can be very useful. [00:20:08.08]

Question: How much do you read when you’re writing?

Francine Prose: You know, I wish, I wish I read more. I mean when I was a kid that’s all I did for years. And then when you’re in college, if you’re an English major as I was, you know, you’ll have a week where you have to read four Victorian novels by the end. You know, you’re reading these huge amounts. Now, unfortunately, my life is so overwhelmingly crammed with stuff that it’s very hard to find that time to just read for pleasure. Also, because I still review quite a bit. Often the books I’m reading are books that I’m reading for work really. But every so often I get a chance to read something just to read something. I mean, I was traveling a lot in the spring and I read Little Dorrit; Dickens’ Little Dorrit. And I just loved it. I just couldn’t believe it. A number of us were reading Little Dorrit actually. Friends of mine because I guess there was a PBS series. There was a dramatization and a couple of my friends said, oh I don’t really want to watch the TV show. Let’s read it. And you know, we don’t have a reading group or anything but just people I knew were reading it. And a friend of mine said, who would have thought that Dickens has been underrated all this time. It was so great and the joy of reading it was extraordinary. So you know every so often that happens.

Question: How much should aspiring writers read?

Francine Prose: I’m always shocked and believe me it happens more than you can imagine, to meet young writers, graduate students, who don’t read. Or don’t read anything written before the last 50 years. Or don’t see why they should read the classics and I just can’t understand why they want to be writers. What would be the point really?

Question: Do you worry about the decline in reading?

Francine Prose: Yeah. How could I not? Although, you know, the novelist Richard Price has this great thing that he says or I heard him say which was people were talking about the death of the novel and he says the novel will be around at our funeral. And it’s true. You know, there’s still, you know, I was just this weekend I was at the Brooklyn Book Festival. It was jammed. There were hundreds of people there. You know, people with baby strollers and readers and writers and it was jammed. So clearly somebody is still reading. I mean I can’t figure out, you know, I guess there were a couple of musicians there. There were no movie stars that I noticed so somebody had to be there to see writers.

Question: Why do you write both fiction and non-fiction?

Francine Prose: Well, simply, I like writing both. But also I’m not – there’s some writers, well Philip Roth comes to mind for example, who can at this point finish a novel and, as far as I can tell, start another novel. And with no decline in quality really. He can just keep turning out these fabulous novels but I can’t do that. I need time after a novel, really, to write another novel; to even think about another novel. Nonfiction is great in that way in that you don’t need the same kind of inspiration really. You can just write. And I like to write. I mean, I have to say, I like the act of writing. I like writing. So I’m able to keep writing without depending on all the sorts of things that you can’t control. I mean, the imagination or all the things that go into a novel. You know, writing nonfiction you have a certain amount of information and you put that information together and tell a story as you would in a novel but it’s not – you can control it. I mean, you don’t – you can pretty much always finish a work of nonfiction. I mean, I’ve stopped novels in the middle because they are not going anywhere. This has never happened to me with nonfiction.

Question: Do you write every day?


Francine Prose: Well, unfortunately not. I mean, here I am. I’m not going to write today but when I can. For example, this summer I wrote everyday; pretty much every day. You know, the summers are great. I mean, I can work in the garden and so forth and write. So over the summer I wrote everyday and if I had my, if I could choose my life, I would be writing everyday but no one can really. Or very few people can so I actually have a life in addition to having a writing life. And there are various things that I have to do and want to do because of the life I’m living in addition to the writing life so no I don’t. [00:28:04.25]

Question: Do you keep your own journal or notebook?

Francine Prose: I wish I did. You know, I used to be kind of snooty about them. I used to say things like, well I’m not that interested in myself. Now I wish I did because as I remember fewer and fewer things that happened to me, I wish I had the source that I could go to. Because often it happens that people say, remember we were having dinner at blah blah and someday said duh duh. And it’s as if it never happened. So I would like to have some reference to be able to go to but no I don’t. I keep notebooks.

Question: Do you read the notebooks of other writers?

Francine Prose: Oh sure. And they range from just fascinating to inspirational. I mean, Chekhov’s notebooks are great. Dostoevsky’s notebooks are interesting. You know, his struggle to write Crime and Punishment is all in there. And then the letters, I mean, the letters of Flannery O’Conner are particularly amazing and inspirational because, you know, she was so ill for so much of her life. And her determination. I mean, there’s this fantastic section where her mother persuades her to go to Lourdes to look for a cure really because she was so ill. She goes to Lourdes and I think prays for like her second novel to work out well. You know, so that kind of dedication and her humor, her courage, and her intelligence. Or Elizabeth Bishop’s letters. For one thing, you learn a great deal about the process of writing. And second, you just—it’s such an intimate connection with the writer. [00:31:31.06]

Question: Who was the first author that made you want to write?

Francine Prose: You know, as I said, I was such a big reader when I was a kid. So it could have been—it could have started anywhere. You know, Louisa May Alcott, maybe. Hans Christian Anderson, possibly. I remember very clearly reading, Garcia Marquez One Hundred Years of Solitude when I was maybe a couple years out of college. And, you know, my work is nothing like Garcia Marquez, obviously. But the sense of the pleasure of storytelling and how fun it would be to have a story in which things come back and reappear on plot turns had a huge effect on me. I thought, oh that sounds like fun.

Question: Do you see yourself in sort of as part of a certain generation of writers?

Francine Prose: Yeah. Although, I mean, I have lots of friends who are writers who are around my age so I think of us as a generation of writers. Just because we are writers and we’re a generation but I’m not sure, you know, maybe in some other time, someone will say, oh yes, there’s this connection among us. But I don’t necessarily – what do I want to say? I mean, you are formed by the period during which you grew up so there is a certain sensibility, politically, even though this may not come out in the work, socially, again may not come out in the work, about how we view the world that I think is a connection but people’s work, it’s so different from, in a way that it’s supposed to be. We’re supposed to be completely unlike anyone else. That’s kind of the point, you know.

Question: When did you first think of yourself as a writer?

Francine Prose: I’ll let you know when it happens. You know, it doesn’t – I mean, you were asking before about is there a generation of writers and so forth? One of the reasons I feel so fortunate to have close friends who are writers is that we can, on some level, you know, the intensity of self doubt and uncertainty and, you know, a friend of mine says well you never known if anything’s good until the last sentence or the last paragraph or the last draft. I mean that, you know, and if you’re writing a novel, let’s say, you could be working for four years without anyone looking at what you’re doing. So, at some point, you know, at some point every so often I’ll look back at something I’ve done and say, oh yeah, I’m a writer. This is really good. But those moments are rare still. They’re rare.

Recorded On: September 16, 2009


Francine Prose discusses reading as a writer and the importance of influence.

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Why compassion fades

A scientific look into a ubiquitous phenomenon.

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Sex & Relationships

One victim can break our hearts. Remember the image of the young Syrian boy discovered dead on a beach in Turkey in 2015? Donations to relief agencies soared after that image went viral. However, we feel less compassion as the number of victims grows. Are we incapable of feeling compassion for large groups of people who suffer a tragedy, such as an earthquake or the recent Sri Lanka Easter bombings? Of course not, but the truth is we aren't as compassionate as we'd like to believe, because of a paradox of large numbers. Why is this?

Compassion is a product of our sociality as primates. In his book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer states, "Human beings are social animals. We were social before we were human." Mr. Singer goes on to say, "We can be sure that we restrained our behavior toward our fellows before we were rational human beings. Social life requires some degree of restraint. A social grouping cannot stay together if its members make frequent and unrestrained attacks on one another."

Attacks on ingroups can come from forces of nature as well. In this light, compassion is a form of expressed empathy to demonstrate camaraderie.

Yet even after hundreds of centuries of evolution, when tragedy strikes beyond our community, our compassion wanes as the number of displaced, injured, and dead mounts.

The drop-off in commiseration has been termed the collapse of compassion. The term has also been defined in The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science: ". . . people tend to feel and act less compassionately for multiple suffering victims than for a single suffering victim."

That the drop-off happens has been widely documented, but at what point this phenomenon happens remains unclear. One paper, written by Paul Slovic and Daniel Västfjäll, sets out a simple formula, ". . . where the emotion or affective feeling is greatest at N =1 but begins to fade at N = 2 and collapses at some higher value of N that becomes simply 'a statistic.'"

The ambiguity of "some higher value" is curious. That value may relate to Dunbar's Number, a theory developed by British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. His research centers on communal groups of primates that evolved to support and care for larger and larger groups as their brains (our brains) expanded in capacity. Dunbar's is the number of people with whom we can maintain a stable relationship — approximately 150.

Some back story

Professor Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford has published considerable research on anthropology and evolutionary psychology. His work is informed by anthropology, sociology and psychology. Dunbar's Number is a cognitive boundary, one we are likely incapable of breaching. The number is based around two notions; that brain size in primates correlates with the size of the social groups they live among and that these groups in human primates are relative to communal numbers set deep in our evolutionary past. In simpler terms, 150 is about the maximum number of people with whom we can identify with, interact with, care about, and work to protect. Dunbar's Number falls along a logorithmic continuum, beginning with the smallest, most emotionally connected group of five, then expanding outward in multiples of three: 5, 15, 50, 150. The numbers in these concentric circles are affected by multiple variables, including the closeness and size of immediate and extended families, along with the greater cognitive capacity of some individuals to maintain stable relationships with larger than normal group sizes. In other words, folks with more cerebral candlepower can engage with larger groups. Those with lesser cognitive powers, smaller groups.

The number that triggers "compassion collapse" might be different for individuals, but I think it may begin to unravel along the continuum of Dunbar's relatable 150. We can commiserate with 5 to 15 to 150 people because upon those numbers, we can overlay names and faces of people we know: our families, friends and coworkers, the members of our clan. In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, that number is important. We needed to care if bands of our clan were being harmed by raids, disaster, or disease, because our survival depended on the group staying intact. Our brains developed the capacity to care for the entirety of the group but not beyond it. Beyond our ingroup was an outgroup that may have competed with us for food and safety and it served us no practical purpose to feel sad that something awful had happened to them, only to learn the lessons so as to apply them for our own survival, e.g., don't swim with hippos.


Imagine losing 10 family members in a house fire. Now instead, lose 10 neighbors, 10 from a nearby town, 10 from Belgium, 10 from Vietnam 10 years ago. One could almost feel the emotion ebbing as the sentence drew to a close.

There are two other important factors which contribute to the softening of our compassion: proximity and time. While enjoying lunch in Santa Fe, we can discuss the death toll in the French revolution with no emotional response but might be nauseated to discuss three children lost in a recent car crash around the corner. Conflict journalists attempt to bridge these geotemporal lapses but have long struggled to ignite compassion in their home audience for far-flung tragedies, Being a witness to carnage is an immense stressor, but the impact diminishes across the airwaves as the kilometers pile up.

A Dunbar Correlation

Where is the inflection point at which people become statistics? Can we find that number? In what way might that inflection point be influenced by the Dunbar 150?

"Yes, the Dunbar number seems relevant here," said Gad Saad, PhD., the evolutionary behavioral scientist from the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University, Montreal, in an email correspondence. Saad also recommended Singer's work.

I also went to the wellspring. I asked Professor Dunbar by email if he thought 150 was a reasonable inflection point for moving from compassion into statistics. He graciously responded, lightly edited for space.

Professor Dunbar's response:

"The short answer is that I have no idea, but what you suggest is perfect sense. . . . One-hundred and fifty is the inflection point between the individuals we can empathize with because we have personal relationships with them and those with whom we don't have personalized relationships. There is, however, also another inflection point at 1,500 (the typical size of tribes in hunter-gatherer societies) which defines the limit set by the number of faces we can put names to. After 1,500, they are all completely anonymous."

I asked Dunbar if he knows of or suspects a neurophysiological aspect to the point where we simply lose the capacity to manage our compassion:

"These limits are underpinned by the size of key bits of the brain (mainly the frontal lobes, but not wholly). There are a number of studies showing this, both across primate species and within humans."

In his literature, Professor Dunbar presents two reasons why his number stands at 150, despite the ubiquity of social networking: the first is time — investing our time in a relationship is limited by the number of hours we have available to us in a given week. The second is our brain capacity measured in primates by our brain volume.

Friendship, kinship and limitations

"We devote around 40 percent of our available social time to our 5 most intimate friends and relations," Dunbar has written, "(the subset of individuals on whom we rely the most) and the remaining 60 percent in progressively decreasing amounts to the other 145."

These brain functions are costly, in terms of time, energy and emotion. Dunbar states, "There is extensive evidence, for example, to suggest that network size has significant effects on health and well-being, including morbidity and mortality, recovery from illness, cognitive function, and even willingness to adopt healthy lifestyles." This suggests that we devote so much energy to our own network that caring about a larger number may be too demanding.

"These differences in functionality may well reflect the role of mentalizing competencies. The optimal group size for a task may depend on the extent to which the group members have to be able to empathize with the beliefs and intentions of other members so as to coordinate closely…" This neocortical-to-community model carries over to compassion for others, whether in or out of our social network. Time constrains all human activity, including time to feel.

As Dunbar writes in The Anatomy of Friendship, "Friendship is the single most important factor influencing our health, well-being, and happiness. Creating and maintaining friendships is, however, extremely costly, in terms of both the time that has to be invested and the cognitive mechanisms that underpin them. Nonetheless, personal social networks exhibit many constancies, notably in their size and their hierarchical structuring." Our mental capacity may be the primary reason we feel less empathy and compassion for larger groups; we simply don't have the cerebral apparatus to manage their plights. "Part of friendship is the act of mentalizing, or mentally envisioning the landscape of another's mind. Cognitively, this process is extraordinarily taxing, and as such, intimate conversations seem to be capped at about four people before they break down and form smaller conversational groups. If the conversation involves speculating about an absent person's mental state (e.g., gossiping), then the cap is three — which is also a number that Shakespeare's plays respect."

We cannot mentalize what is going on in the minds of people in our groups much beyond our inner circle, so it stands to reason we cannot do it for large groups separated from us by geotemporal lapses.

Emotional regulation

In a paper, C. Daryl Cameron and Keith B. Payne state, "Some researchers have suggested that [compassion collapse] happens because emotions are not triggered by aggregates. We provide evidence for an alternative account. People expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming, and, as a result, they engage in emotion regulation to prevent themselves from experiencing overwhelming levels of emotion. Because groups are more likely than individuals to elicit emotion regulation, people feel less for groups than for individuals."

This argument seems to imply that we have more control over diminishing compassion than not. To say, "people expect the needs of large groups to be potentially overwhelming" suggests we consciously consider what that caring could entail and back away from it, or that we become aware that we are reaching and an endpoint of compassion and begin to purposely shift the framing of the incident from one that is personal to one that is statistical. The authors offer an alternative hypothesis to the notion that emotions are not triggered by aggregates, by attempting to show that we regulate our emotional response as the number of victims becomes perceived to be overwhelming. However, in the real world, for example, large death tolls are not brought to us one victim at a time. We are told, about a devastating event, then react viscerally.

If we don't begin to express our emotions consciously, then the process must be subconscious, and that number could have evolved to where it is now innate.

Gray matter matters

One of Dunbar's most salient points is that brain capacity influences social networks. In his paper, The Social Brain, he writes: "Path analysis suggests that there is a specific causal relationship in which the volume of a key prefrontal cortex subregion (or subregions) determines an individual's mentalizing skills, and these skills in turn determine the size of his or her social network."

It's not only the size of the brain but in fact, mentalizing recruits different regions for ingroup empathy. The Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education published a study of the brain regions activated when showing empathy for strangers in which the authors stated, "Interestingly, in brain imaging studies of mentalizing, participants recruit more dorsal portions of the medial prefrontal cortex (dMPFC; BA 8/9) when mentalizing about strangers, whereas they recruit more ventral regions of the medial prefrontal cortex (BA 10), similar to the MPFC activation reported in the current study, when mentalizing about close others with whom participants experience self-other overlap."⁷

It's possible the region of the brain that activates to help an ingroup member evolved for good reason, survival of the group. Other regions may have begun to expand as those smaller tribal groups expanded into larger societies.

Rabbit holes

There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:

(1) Manner: How the news is presented affects viewer framing. In her book, European Foreign Conflict Reporting: A Comparative Analysis of Public News, Emma Heywood explores how tragedies and war are offered to the viewers, which can elicit greater or lesser compassionate responses. "Techniques, which could raise compassion amongst the viewers, and which prevail on New at Ten, are disregarded, allowing the victims to remain unfamiliar and dissociated from the viewer. This approach does not encourage viewers to engage with the sufferers, rather releases them from any responsibility to participate emotionally. Instead compassion values are sidelined and potential opportunities to dwell on victim coverage are replaced by images of fighting and violence."

(2) Ethnicity. How relatable are the victims? Although it can be argued that people in western countries would feel a lesser degree of compassion for victims of a bombing in Karachi, that doesn't mean people in countries near Pakistan wouldn't feel compassion for the Karachi victims at a level comparable to what westerners might feel about a bombing in Toronto. Distance has a role to play in this dynamic as much as in the sound evolutionary data that demonstrate a need for us to both recognize and empathize with people who look like our communal entity. It's not racism; it's tribalism. We are simply not evolved from massive heterogeneous cultures. As evolving humans, we're still working it all out. It's a survival mechanism that developed over millennia that we now struggle with as we fine tune our trust for others.

In the end

Think of compassion collapse on a grid, with compassion represented in the Y axis and the number of victims running along the X. As the number of victims increases beyond one, our level of compassion is expected to rise. Setting aside other variables that may raise compassion (proximity, familiarity etc.), the level continues to rise until, for some reason, it begins to fall precipitously.

Is it because we've become aware of being overwhelmed or because we have reached max-capacity neuron load? Dunbar's Number seems a reasonable place to look for a tipping point.

Professor Dunbar has referred to the limits of friendship as a "budgeting problem." We simply don't have the time to manage a bigger group of friends. Our compassion for the plight of strangers may drop of at a number equivalent to the number of people with who we can be friends, a number to which we unconsciously relate. Whether or not we solve this intellectual question, it remains a curious fact that the larger a tragedy is, the more likely human faces are to become faceless numbers.