Empathy Isn’t Enough

The perils and limits of writing with a moral message: Your weekly guide to the best in books

High angle headshot portait of African American woman with serious facial expression, San Francisco, California, 1980
Clarence Gatson / Gado / Getty

Supposedly, one of the benefits of reading books is that they can make you a better, more empathetic person—whether you pick up a novel that makes you feel for its characters, or a nonfiction book with a moral message. But what are the limits of writing that tries to provoke empathy in its readers?

When it was published in 2020, Jeanine Cummins’s novel American Dirt, which follows the harrowing migration of a Mexican mother and son to the U.S., was first widely lauded, then sharply criticized. As Hannah Giorgis wrote, there’s an empty, “soft egotism” in Cummins’s attempts to get her readers to see Latino immigrants as human beings. “What good, after all, does the mere acknowledgment of migrants’ essential humanity do for those whose lives have been shattered—and in some cases, ended” by U.S. immigration policies? she asks. In Horse, Geraldine Brooks knowingly takes on the challenge of writing across racial lines: two of her protagonists are Black men. Though she may succeed in gaining the reader’s sympathy, that sympathy “fall[s] short, aesthetically as well as politically,” writes Jordan Kisner, because Brooks’s portrayal lacks nuance and depth. “If readers feel sorry for Theo and Jarret without really needing to believe in them as whole beings, what exactly do their portraits accomplish?” she writes.

Likewise, nonfiction “anti-racism” books might give readers a false sense that learning about the “lived experiences” of Black people is sufficient—based on a faulty claim that, as Saida Grundy writes, “broader knowledge of systemic racism will bring about meaningful social change for Black communities.” Literature isn’t a swap for policy and “structural redress,” she argues.

Scientists have explored the possible emotional benefits of reading literature. But psychologists in 2016 weren’t able to replicate the results of a 2013 study that found that fiction helped participants intuit others’ emotional states, Joseph Frankel reports. And he notes that empathy is too often “conflated with the ideas of compassion, morality, and kindness.”

Of course, none of this is to say that reading can’t bring about genuine feeling. Idra Novey writes that the author Mieko Kawakami, for example, uses imagery to draw her reader into the “emotional intensity of the scenes.” Experiencing that intensity may not make us more empathetic. But it does create a connection, however brief, with a work of art. Maybe that’s reward enough.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

a photo of American Dirt author Jeanine Cummins and interviewers

CBS Photo Archive / Getty

The doomed project of American Dirt
“For those whose lives are not shaped fundamentally by the indifference of others, empathy can be a seductive, self-aggrandizing goal. It demands little of author and reader alike.”

drawing of two figures standing in front of a large book

Jamiel Law

White author, Black paragons
“Brooks’s sympathies are evidently with them, and so are ours. But sympathy seems like an inadequate achievement in a project like this, which takes as its subject the worst consequences of white Americans’ failure to recognize the full humanity of Black people.”

silhouette of a woman's face with signs and posters on top of it

Getty / The Atlantic

The false promise of anti-racism books
“When offered in lieu of actionable policies regarding equity, consciousness raising can actually undermine Black progress by presenting increased knowledge as the balm for centuries of abuse … In the form of hollow public statements and company-sponsored conversations, consciousness raising is often toothless.”

text under a magnifying glass


Reading literature won’t give you superpowers
“It’s still an open question why psychologists, the media, and laypeople alike are so interested in the possible benefits of reading fiction. As [Arnold] Weinstein said, those both in and outside of the humanities have ascribed moral benefits to literature and art as ‘a rescue operation’ for these disciplines at a time when their worth is under scrutiny.”

close up black and white photo of a woman's face

Jacob Aue Sobol / Magnum

Each sentence is one you can feel
“Kawakami has found a meaningful answer to the question of what to do with feelings. She releases them into novels.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Maya Chung. The book she’s reading next is Customs, by Solmaz Sharif.

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