Issue November 5, 2013

Literature and empathy

A recent study published in the journal Science raised a lot of eyebrows in, of all places, literary circles. This is especially impressive when you consider how high the eyebrows in literary circles are normally raised.

The study shows that people who read literary fiction are more likely to develop social aptitude and empathy, or what the study calls “theory of mind.” Researchers conducted five experiments that showed that people who read literary fiction scored higher on tests of social empathy than those who read nonfiction, popular fiction (like mysteries and thrillers) or nothing at all.

The idea is that works of complex literary fiction, with their intricate societies and character development, encourage participation by the reader in ways that foster empathy. Those participants who didn’t read literary fiction were less socially astute, or, as Dorothea tells Celia in “Middlemarch,” “It is so painful in you, Celia, that you will look at human beings as if they were merely animals with a toilet, and never see the great soul in a man’s face.”

Note that we’re talking true art: Eliot, Dickens and Tolstoy, not Grisham, King and E.L. James. Also, nonfiction doesn’t count, no matter how steamy the relationships. Pop fiction and nonfiction might be entertaining, but they don’t inspire the same empathetic response.

Makes sense, right? Anyone who walks 600 pages in Captain Ahab’s topsiders is going to learn a thing or two about the complex interplay among human beings. Spend 800 pages in Anna Karenina’s world of longing, lust and emotional hardship and you’ll walk away with the empathy chops to make the Dalai Lama look like Dennis Miller.

But the more I thought about this, the more I began to question the study’s findings. For one thing, I adore literary fiction. I have spent a significant part of my life with the great masters of fiction, and I consider snuggling up with Joyce, Twain or Dostoyevsky to be a wild night on the town. Just between you ’n’ me, I’d much rather hang out with Oliver Twist, Tom Jones and Sister Carrie than most of the flesh-and-blood people I know, most of whom I sincerely hope are not reading this column.

And yet, I’m not sure I’m anyone’s poster boy for empathy. Some of my previous rants, with titles like “Can I Really Be Falling in Love with a Chick Who’s into Journey?,” “Suck It, Extraterrestrials!” and “Charlton Heston’s Chicken-Fried, Whale-Nuking, Corporate Ballsack of Values” suggest that “empathy” might not be one of the words mentioned in my eulogy.

But it’s not just me. Most people I know who love the classics are introverts who are not likely to be taking home the Miss Congeniality trophy. Or, as Martin Chuzzlewit says to Mr. Tigg, “This is a large town, and we can easily find different ways in it. If you will show me which is your way, I will take another.” We crave our couch time, cuddled up in our bowties and tweeds — and by bowties and tweeds, I mean lucky lounge trousers and inside-out sweatshirts.

I suspect many literary obsessives have the social skills of people who spend a lot of time alone on the couch, not empathetic geniuses sashaying Bill Clinton-like through dinner parties feeling everyone’s pain. Finishing a delicious Dickens book might make me more caring, but it mostly makes me wonder what William Makepeace Thackeray is up to. It seems more likely that heightened social evolution leads to social alienation. Well, somebody on Twitter probably knows.

Of course, empathy and curmudgeonhood are not mutually exclusive. Maybe “seeing the soul in a man’s face” affords glimpses of Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” that are too painful to bear.

But maybe the study is just a hint at the monstrous, non-empathetic bastard I could be if it weren’t for a lifetime of reading fiction. Heck, if not for my heightened theory of mind thanks to literature, I could be writing media releases for BP or laissez-faire talking points for Rand Paul to plagiarize from Wikipedia. So thank you, literary fiction, for keeping me on the couch with my books. A grateful nation salutes you.

And if any of you beautiful motherfuckers need me, I’ll be on the couch. You know, working on my empathy.