Sympathy and the Sympathetic

I recently had a conversation with a professor in the English department and, among other things, sought to explain to him why I didn’t like the book I’d just read for his class.
Simply put, I found the novel (Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser) to be short on interesting and sympathetic characters. Yes, they read like normal people, to a degree. Yes, I like ordinary people just fine. The problem I had with the book was the lack of competence, the lack of fortitude and power expressed by all the characters. My argument remains that the book only does one thing, and that thing is demonstrate a social situation in an impersonal fashion. Perhaps Dreiser was even attempting to make the situation impersonal so as to be didactic. If that is the case he made a book that disgusts me for reasons he fully understood.
I think that manner of writing fiction, writing fiction to instruct, is a bit silly. People certainly can be trained by stories, but the cost of seeing other humans as shallow and weak is the same price as ever: sympathy, and with it, involvement.
Gone are the days when a big idea could make the story engaging to the average audience, and gone are the days of my life in which I enjoyed the preaching of others with no more understanding than anyone else.
I didn’t say all of this to the professor, but was surprised when he mentioned that he doesn’t read to identify with characters. He is an English Professor, however, so he hardly can be considered a typical reader.
I still argue that most readers want an interesting and engaging story, and for that they need characters to be engaged with.

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