I recently attended a reading by George Saunders for his new novel Lincoln at the Bardo. After admitting that, politically, he was “left of Ghandi,” Saunders addressed a struggle he and other liberals were currently facing: whether to be empathetic or to be fierce. “And my answer to that,” he said, “is yeah. Real empathy can be really fierce. If you see a baby crawling toward a light socket, you don’t go, aww, you grab that sucker by the diaper.”
The relationship between empathy and action has been the subject of debate in the academic community. Paul Bloom, a professor at Yale University and author of the recent book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, draws a critical distinction between empathy and compassion. Empathy, he says, is the capacity to feel what others are feeling. Compassion, on the other hand, is feeling positive and caring towards someone. In Bloom’s framing, empathy doesn’t necessarily result in kind action toward others and compassion does not require feeling what someone else is feeling.
The idea that empathy is not a prerequisite for action might strike some as counterintuitive. How can compassion and kindness exist independent of empathy? Doesn’t feeling what others are feeling inspire us to act? Bloom uses a few simple examples to demonstrate how action can exist independent of empathy: “I can worry about a child who is afraid of a thunderstorm and pick her up and comfort her without experiencing her fear in the slightest. I can be concerned about starving people and try to support them without having any vicarious experience of starving.” In the scenario presented by Saunders, Bloom would suggest that saying “aww” is empathetic, whereas “grabbing that sucker by the diaper” is compassionate.
This distinction is important because a slew of research in the last decade found that reading fiction can make you more empathetic. This finding was taken up in the media as proof that reading fiction can make you a better person. Writing for the New York Times in a piece entitled “Your Brain on Fiction,” Annie Paul Murphy concluded, “Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.”
As a literate society, this is an idea that is ingrained in us. But in conflating empathy with improvement, Bloom believes we are making a crucial error. “Not only can compassion and kindness exist independently of empathy,” says Bloom, “they are sometimes opposed. Sometimes we are better people if we suppress our empathic feelings.” In a conversation on Heleo, Bloom illustrates this point using a famous literary example: “Sure, your empathic connections with fiction drive certain feelings, but my favorite book is Nabokov’s Lolita, and I would challenge anybody to make it through twenty pages without feeling tremendous empathy for Humbert Humbert and his plight. He’s plainly immoral, but once you’re in his shoes, you can’t help but adopt his goals.” Reading fiction, it seems, might not be so good for us after all.
In a recent email exchange I asked Dan Johnson, a professor at Washington and Lee University, what to make of Bloom’s claims. In a study, Johnson found that participants that read an excerpt of a novel from a Muslim perspective engaged in less racial stereotyping on a subsequent test than those that had simply read a synopsis of the excerpt. But Johnson is careful to draw overarching conclusions. He points out that in his first research on the subject, a 2006 study in which participants more absorbed in a fictional story were more likely to help a researcher pick up dropped pens, he intentionally used a story with “moral characters and positive outcomes.” One can reasonably hypothesize that reading an excerpt from The Art of the Deal would have produced a different result.
But Johnson is also careful not to dismiss the power of fiction. He continues, “If one views reading fiction as a tool to improve our understanding of others in the real world, then reading fiction could have a net positive effect. For example, if reading fiction is used to understand groups and cultures different from your own, it may help reduce prejudice. But, like any tool, it can be abused as well.”
Indeed, the limitation of research is that it can’t take into account the qualitative relationship between reader and text. One could read Lolita and get off on its perversity. Or one could read Lolita, empathize with Humbert Humbert, and come away with a much deeper understanding of obsession, lust, and the complexities of human desire. Several studies by researchers Keith Oatley and Raymond Mar have shown that reading fiction improves theory of mind in both children and adults—the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes and see from their perspective. Reading fiction might not incite compassionate action, but it can lay the groundwork for a worldview that is inclusive of others.
Perhaps when we consider a tool as complex as a work of fiction, our conclusions about it needs to be more nuanced as well. It’s possible, then, that we have the question wrong. Reading fiction might not make you a better person, rather, being curious, engaged, and open might make you a better person—and fiction can be a powerful aid in that quest. In that sense, what matters is not that you read fiction, but how you read. Says Johnson, “The promise of reading fiction as a tool to promote empathy and/or prosocial behavior is that it can expose readers to diverse cultures and distant places without having the reader leave their living room.”
On this, Bloom would agree. In a recent piece for The Atlantic on Virtual Reality, Bloom pointed out that there are much better machines than VR for inducing empathy. These machines, Bloom pointed out, “allow you to simulate not only the physical environment of individuals, but also their psychological experiences, and can do this for multiple people, moving forward and backward in time.” He was talking, of course, about books. Bloom concluded, “When it comes to understanding the lives of others, nothing else comes close.”
At the end of George Saunders’ reading, he took questions from the audience. One person asked about the role of art in a time of crisis. Saunders described the creative mind as one that is curious and capacious, in contrast to his mind while watching the news, which was full of anxiety and outrage. If art can bring us to that former place, perhaps it is more essential now than ever before. Does fiction inspire us to be empathetic or fierce? Yeah.
Alex Tzelnic is a writer and Zen practitioner living in Cambridge, MA. writing work has appeared in Tricycle magazine, the Rumpus, and Killing the Buddha. To find out what fiction he is currently reading, check out his literary podcast, Tripod.
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