Are Fiction Readers More Empathic?

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.

8 thoughts on “Are Fiction Readers More Empathic?”

  1. I think it depends on the reader or writer. If the reader is the kind of person who can be empathetic, who is capable of entering into someone else’s case for real, experiencing sympathy through imaginative identification, writing by someone who is similarly gifted and wants to write for extending sympathy and true knowledge of what makes for a good life, yes. But if not, no. How many times on the Net over the year I’ve come across readers who use a book to berate characters, to reinforce their own prejudices in front of other readers who do likewise. And many writers write bad books for bad reasons. Much of what we take in is indirect; the idea of role models is a sad simplification of how we bond and learn. I’d say the same holds true of movies, except far more are made just for money and to reach an audience where social prejudices are reinforced. Plays on stage come somewhere inbetween. Thank you for telling me about this essay. Ellen

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    1. Yes, some readers do react to characters in fiction as if they were their relatives or something. The beauty of fiction is that you CAN see things from another’s point-of-view–even Soames in The Forsyte Saga. But some readers are ready not only to loathe Soames but to condemn Fleur, who is so strong-willed she does make terrible mistakes. There is a lot of condemnation as well as empathy!

      Overall, novels and short stories awaken our imaginations. I love the idea that readers are better people, but I’m not sure these studies prove that.

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  2. “An Old-Fashioned Girl” is my favorite LMA book!

    I’d say that reading, especially fiction, done right, makes you more empathetic for sure. It’s the “done right” part that’s the trouble, though. As for writers, I am one, so of course I’d like to think that writers are more empathetic 🙂 However, again I think it depends on the writer. Also, I think there’s a tendency with a lot of artists to spend all your empathy and insight on your art, and not have a lot left over for daily life. And the fact that we all have a “shadow,” to use Jung’s term, that can take over and make us appear to be the opposite of what we want to be if we’re not adequately self-aware.

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    1. Writers have the talent to “spellbind,” and where the talent comes from, nobody knows–and I’m sure you ARE empathetic. It’s the prima donna syndrome, in some female and male writers, that leads me to doubt their empathy. But talent is very mysterious…

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