Novelists have historically tended to be invested in the notion that narrative art can jolt us out of our selfish complacency and into a deeper sense of the experiences and sufferings of other people. George Eliot, in her essay on German realism, wrote that “the greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalisations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.” And here’s David Foster Wallace saying something quite similar, if more pessimistic about the degree to which genuine connection is possible: “We all suffer alone in the real world. True empathy's impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character's pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with their own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.”
So this research is, in one sense, a pretty trivial reiteration of something that has long been taken as a basic article of faith by many people for whom literature is more than mere escapism. The important difference here, obviously, is that it is science that is telling us this about literature, and not literature itself—and so the idea seems, rightly or wrongly, more like something you can take to the bank. But although I believe that literature is a huge and indispensable aspect of our humanity—that books are, as Susan Sontag put it, nothing less than “a way of being fully human”—I felt that there was something oddly diminishing, and perhaps even absurd, in the notion of bringing literature to account in this way. Of sitting people down and giving them a chunk of Chekhov to work their way through, and then measuring the short-term uptick in their ability to read people’s facial expressions. (And does the ability to correctly read emotions from pictures of faces really translate into anything like real empathy? I can recognize that you are suffering, but not really feel that recognition act with any force upon myself, let alone lead me into doing anything about it.)
I’m equally ambivalent about the question of whether reading literary fiction really does make you a better person—not just about what the answer might be, but whether the question itself is really a meaningful one to be asking at all. It implies a fairly narrow and reductive legitimation of reading. There’s a risk of thinking about literature in a sort of morally instrumentalist way, whereby its value can be measured in terms of its capacity to improve us. There was a weirdly revealing quality, for instance, in the language that the Atlantic Wire used in reporting on similar research conducted in the Netherlands earlier this year. “Readers who emotionally immerse themselves with written fiction for weeklong periods,” David Wagner wrote, “can help boost their empathetic skills [...] Gauging the participants' empathetic abilities and self-reported emotions before and after such reading sessions, they found that the fiction readers got more of an emotional workout than the nonfiction readers.” It’s possibly unfair to put too much pressure on one writer’s choice of words in framing the discussion (particularly in a roundup blurb), but it hints at a certain view of literature that is implicit in this way of thinking about it—literature as PX90 workout for the soul, as a cardio circuit for the bleeding heart.
We have, I think, an anxiety about the place of literature in our world, about the usefulness of reading fiction. If we can answer the question of why we read with the empirically verifiable assertion that it makes us more socially attuned, then that seems to give literature an identifiable job to do, a useful function in our lives. Perhaps this is the case; perhaps reading Kafka or Woolf or Naipaul does make you a better, more empathic person. (Though what about your hardline literary misanthropes, by the way—your Bernhards, your Houellebecqs, your Célines? Do we gain anything in moral aptitude by reading these dreadful old bastards, and, if we don’t, is doing so somehow less worthy of our time?) But even if it didn’t, even if reading made you a worse person—if you found yourself too engrossed in Karl Ove Knausgaard to take your bored children to the park—reading would be no less vital an activity. I don’t know whether all those boxes full of books have made me any kind of better person; I don’t know whether they’ve made me kinder and more perceptive, or whether they’ve made me more introspective and detached and self-absorbed. Most likely it’s some combination of all these characteristic, perhaps canceling each other out. But I do know that I wouldn’t want to be without those books or my having read them, and that their importance to me is mostly unrelated to any power they might have to make me a more considerate person. This, at least, is what I plan to tell my wife next time she complains about my keeping her awake by reading too late.