Once you have the reader’s empathy, though, you must keep it. You must persuade the reader to trust you enough to lower their guard, to let go of the constant low-level self-protection most of us experience in the real world. This means you must be very, very careful how you handle negative experience. Every reader is different, and you can’t please everyone, but my personal bias (and I’m far from alone in this), is extreme antipathy to wanton cruelty towards helpless living things. If you make me empathize with a dog or child or young woman, and then torment them using visceral language, I will experience visceral revulsion, throw the book at the wall, and never read anything you write again. I won’t trust you.
I feel exactly the same way about the same things, and yet I am reluctant to endorse the prescription Griffith makes. For one thing, the category of “negative experience” is so vast and amorphous that, especially when you consider the obvious fact that, as Griffith says, “every reader is different,” it’s hard to think of anything that would clearly escape it. Reading about a happy family might be a “negative experience” for someone whose family is unhappy.
No, I’m inclined to say to writers, Don’t be careful about portraying negative experience or any other kind of experience. If Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and Toni Morrison had been careful, we wouldn’t have King Lear, The Brothers Karamazov, and Beloved — three works that have been enormously painful to many readers. But that pain hasn’t always been bad; sometimes, for some readers, I am inclined to say for most readers, it has been necessary.
I just don’t think we need more books written by people who walk on eggshells for fear of offending or hurting. A world in which some readers are wounded by what they read is not an ideal one, but a world in which writers self-censor to avoid disturbing those most prone to disturbance would be worse. There are other and better ways to protect endangered people than muzzling our writers.
UPDATE: One more point. Griffith’s essay, like much writing on arts and ideas these days, operates from the assumption that any given reader’s vulnerabilities and sensitivities are fixed, unchangeable. The idea that a sensitive reader could become less sensitive, or could adapt to his or her sensitivities in some constructive way, is not on the table. I think it ought to be on the table.