I recently read Mark Athitakis’s fascinating essay in The Washington Post,“Reading Will Supposedly Make You a Better Person.” The twist is that Athitakis is skeptical of studies that say fiction readers have more empathy than other people.
In my gut, I agree with these studies. I’ve thought all my life that fiction makes one a better person. Raised on Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl (her best book), Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, Margaret Sidney’s Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, I am intensely aware that literature shaped my values and moral philosophy. And yet modern readers who love the new movie Little Women complain that Louisa May Alcott’s book is “moralistic.” There’s a difference between “moral philosophy” and “moralistic.” It doesn’t take away from the novel–and I doubt they’ve read the book.
Throughout my adult life, classics have expanded my world and radicalized me. Among them are Frank Herbert’s environmental classic Dune, Charlotte Bronte’s feminist novel Villette, and Doris Lessing’s bildungsroman, the Children of Violence series.
Athitakis is cynical, but he makes some good points.
… I’m irked by how readily news of these studies goes viral, the way that they’re so often taken as opportunities to run a victory lap for one’s own good habits. These studies always seem to unleash approving noises of self-congratulatory self-regard — ironically betraying a narcissism that seems to counter the argument all these studies are making….
He adds that he believe these studies are missing the point.
Fiction’s strength, though, is that it delivers not order and clear direction, but mess and evocations of our unsteady state of being. I’m uncertain what wisdom I can take from the March family, Anna Karenina or Karl Ove Knausgaard that I can apply to my daily life. Nor do I wish to read so programmatically.
It’s an odd thing about empathy: so few people have it. We live in an age of hatred, climate disaster, political instability, fake news and electronic domination. Other ages, of course, have also been bad. Two world wars in the twentieth century, and God knows how many others.
So what creates empathy? Is it a natural human quality? Can experience strengthen or destroy it?
Perhaps reading fiction strengthens empathy. I do find that novels, even mediocre novels, can help you understand the character of different times, as well as human characters.
For instance, Alix Kates Shulman’s Burning Questions, a fast-paced novel about Second Wave feminism, helped me understand the idealism and also the slightly crazy extremism that empowered women in the ’60s and ’70s. Marge Piercy’s beautifully-written Vida, a novel about a radical who has to go underground, answered my questions about forgotten groups like the SLA. More recently, Susan Rebecca White’s We Are All Good People Here illuminates the ’60s and the effect of radicalism on people’s lives.
Readers of fiction may be more empathic than other people, but I doubt that fiction writers are particularly empathetic. (Sorry, writers!) There is the cold-blooded competitiveness, the willingness to trawl and distort friends’ lives (I’m thinking of autofiction, though it fascinates me), or even the plagiarism that apparently goes on in creative writing programs (that’s hearsay, by the way). I have met some charming fiction writers, and other extremely difficult writers. Somehow the word “empathic” doesn’t come to mind.
Are poets kinder? They are a different breed for sure.
As for nonfiction readers, they, too, feel superior, because they are reading the “facts,” or so they pitiably think. Fiction or nonfiction, it’s best to read critically. But we in the land of fiction imagine ourselves in another world, where we understand people as we can’t in our troubled society.