This past September in Des Moines, President Obama conducted an unusual conversation with the novelist Marilynne Robinson. The transcript, published in The New York Review of Books, touched on high-minded topics such as the troubled relationship between Christianity and democracy, the durability of small-town values, and the importance and fragility of public institutions. The discussion was pitched abstractly, never descending into specifics that might inspire significant disagreement. Still, it was an impressive display of two very different minds—the guardedly optimistic leader habitually wary of strident assertions, the writer candidly admitting to darker worries—trying to think through, collaboratively, what it feels like to be an American now.
You might ask, why a novelist? The event had a touchingly antique feel: Think of Hyannis Port in 1960, when the presidential candidate and senator John F. Kennedy charmed Norman Mailer in order to rouse the discouraged liberal elites who were Mailer’s audience; or Manhattan in 1963, when Robert Kennedy asked James Baldwin to convene a private discussion on race that turned out to be an explosive exchange rather than a quiet policy debate. Obama’s motive cannot have been to seduce Robinson with his glamour or to solicit her as the representative of a constituency; novelists no longer command that kind of on-the-ground authority. His choice of a novelist suggests considerations both broader and narrower. Obama addressed Robinson not as a shaper of opinion but as someone with powers linked to her vocation, with a stature he sees as unique to a writer of fiction. He conferred with her as a specialist in empathy.
Listen as he turned the conversation to Robinson’s occupation:
Are you somebody who worries about people not reading novels anymore? And do you think that has an impact on the culture? When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.
For Robinson, addressed by a world leader, this must have been stirring stuff. Even for a wider audience of those who still read and value fiction, a tribute like this has the capacity to warm corners of the mind benumbed by the decline in the novel’s cultural centrality. How often does power pay homage to imagination? In describing the novel’s mission as the production of much-needed empathy, Obama gave a presidential imprimatur to our moment’s most popular theory of fiction.
The theory endorsed by the president—that a deficit in empathy imperils a democratic culture, and that novels keep us entwined and engaged when we might otherwise drift apart in shrill and narcissistic self-certainty—has its roots in pragmatist thinking of the 1980s. Specifically, it draws on the philosopher Richard Rorty’s argument that, in a pluralist culture, theology and philosophy cease to be persuasive sources of a universal, shared human nature that can undergird moral injunctions against cruelty. Catalysts of mutual concern are therefore to be found elsewhere, in imagination rather than dogma. “Novels and ethnographies which sensitize one to the pain of those who do not speak our language,” Rorty proposed, “must do the job which demonstrations of a common human nature were supposed to do.” More recently taken up by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum and explored by various literary scholars, the prescription hearkens back to a nostrum with a Victorian ring: By encouraging us to adopt the perspective of an other—in particular, a profoundly alien other—fiction leads us to draw new and wider nets around our otherwise more isolated selves. Reading novels breaks down the boundary between “me” and “not me.”
Rorty’s argument has lately received an endorsement from an unexpected quarter—cognitive science. According to widely publicized studies, reading fiction improves our “theory of mind,” the capacities that enable us to comprehend the mental states of others. (Especially effective, one study found, is literary fiction—work given to portraying nuanced psychological states in characters—as opposed to genre fiction.) The evidence: Immersion in novels and stories stimulates activity in the brain’s “default network.” That’s the neuroscientific term for the complex of regions associated with drifting, non-goal-oriented consciousness as well as with introspective reflection on the self and others, and on remembered or hypothetical experiences—in short, with what once might have been called the moral imagination. An fMRI machine delivers Rorty’s message in a different register: Novel-reading trains us in empathy. “Only connect!,” E. M. Forster famously proclaimed. If we read novels, it seems, we can scarcely help doing so.
Yet hold the warm tribute to fellow-feeling-through-fiction up to the light, and it reveals as much anxiety as pleasure: the worry that, as Obama expressed it, with “people not reading novels anymore,” empathy itself wanes—and who knows what happens to fiction. The claim that we count on novel-reading to link us as it immerses us is shadowed by a dread that perhaps we are asking too much of an old-fashioned and time-consuming practice. One way to surmount such fears is to write a heroic history of novel-reading itself, which is what William Egginton, a literature professor at Johns Hopkins, has done in The Man Who Invented Fiction: How Cervantes Ushered in the Modern World. It is a literary biography of Miguel de Cervantes with a thesis: Don Quixote, now 400 years old, provided us with the blueprint for a literary form that, above all, teaches readers the cognitive habits of empathetic thinking.
Egginton’s Cervantes is a psychological portraitist, and his key technique is a parallax effect. Placed between one character’s misapprehension of a situation and a second character’s quite different experience of that same situation, our readerly point of view becomes three-dimensional, and the fictional universe we have entered gains depth. We learn how different things can look and feel depending on where, or in whose shoes, we stand. While laughing at or with Quixote as he makes mistakes about windmills or sheep or village girls, we practice the trick of empathy, that odd stereopsis that allows us to stay rooted in ourselves while also registering the world through some other perspective.
This is very much a Cervantes for the current moment, a pioneer who holds out the prospect that fiction can serve as an antidote to the anomie of fierce yet stifling partisan identification and clamorous yet thin social connections. Egginton’s Cervantes is not really a satirist, and only secondarily a humorist. The laughter of recognition that his Cervantes occasions is not cruel, it is therapeutic—because the fiction he invents is, as Egginton puts it, a “mode of writing that specializes in breaking boundaries and perhaps even palliating the pain that those boundaries can engender.”
In Egginton’s “perhaps,” you can catch an undercurrent of wistfulness and doubt, an awareness of what a large burden fiction is being made to bear. The daunting responsibility of the novelist is written into Egginton’s story. His Cervantes emerges out of the desengaño, or ambient disillusionment, of imperial Spain, a bitterly partisan world of perpetual war and financial overreach, a world that perceives itself to be in decline and is incapable of imagining what might follow the decline. Egginton draws the parallel to our era with a light touch, but it haunts his otherwise triumphant version of fiction’s origin story. Well-timed for the quadricentennial of Cervantes’s death in 1616, The Man Who Invented Fiction also can’t help feeling impelled by a sense of the genre’s waning importance now. Egginton’s history of fiction, if you read between the lines, is also an act of apprehensive advocacy for fiction—a call not to lose faith in its power to dissolve our separateness.
Cervantes is an inspiring forefather. Still, an account of the novel’s rise that puts such emphasis on the refinement of techniques to expand the moral imagination prompts the question of whether the genre is primarily committed to that task anymore. At one time or another, after all, different visions of the novel have vied for prominence: the idea of fiction as a kind of play, a pretend state that liberates our powers of invention; the appreciation of fiction’s role in releasing unexpressed agonies, allowing us a cathartic self-knowledge; the awareness of the thrill fiction offers of living in a space where assumed values are thrown into question. Fiction as play, as catharsis, as irony—these powerful accounts of what novels can do aren’t ruled out by faith in empathy, exactly, but they are eclipsed, implicitly demoted in importance. Could it be that fiction, whose signs of decline have us on edge, is in fact exhibiting unfamiliar new signs of life that confuse and unnerve us?
To judge by some of the most critically acclaimed and influential novels of recent years, a diverse group of younger novelists have little interest in becoming specialists in empathy. They tackle a variety of subjects in their fiction, but they share a ruminative first-person voice given to self-expression more than to distinct characterization. Although many of these novels are about young artists in urban settings, it’s hard to align their voices with an identifiable “perspective,” because they are so uninflected, so limpid as to seem almost naive. They scarcely have a story to tell; they are diaristic, meandering, reflective. And the focus of their reflections is the dangers that empathy might present—the way that it invites a surrender of the self; the way that its preference for the nuances of psychological communion can create a fog of complacency, blurring stark truths of power; the way that it pushes us toward social adhesion when we’re more at risk of losing an awareness of our identities as protean and separate.
Take the opening sentences of one of last year’s notable debuts, Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine:
Is it true that we are more or less the same on the inside? I don’t mean psychologically. I’m thinking of the vital organs, the stomach, heart, lungs, liver: of their placement and function, and the way that a surgeon making the cut thinks not of my body in particular but of a general body, depicted in cross section on some page of a medical school textbook. The heart from my body could be lifted and placed in yours, and this portion of myself that I had incubated would live on, pushing foreign blood through foreign channels. In the right container, it might never know the difference.
Kleeman plays with an idea of empathy so extreme that it collapses on itself: What if there is no essential difference between humans worth bridging? The result might be an insatiable hunger for something that reminds us of our distinctness.
Ben Lerner’s 10:04, the celebrated second novel of a writer recently anointed with a MacArthur Fellowship, begins in a relentlessly fashionable downtown-Manhattan restaurant that features “baby octopuses the chef had literally massaged to death.” Having swallowed them whole, the narrator feels himself possessed by a cephalopod’s consciousness:
We sat and watched the traffic and I am kidding and I am not kidding when I say that I intuited an alien intelligence, felt subject to a succession of images, sensations, memories, and affects that did not, properly speaking, belong to me: the ability to perceive polarized light; a conflation of taste and touch as salt was rubbed into the suction cups; a terror localized in my extremities, bypassing the brain completely.
Lerner, right at the outset, estranges us from any conventional sense of intuitive insight into others. Much like Kleeman, he wants to raise the possibility that empathy can swallow us as quickly as his narrator swallows his meal—that it can be brainless, instinctive, unedifying.
These are little opening parables. They tell us that what we are about to read aims to explode familiar expectations of “perspective” and “empathy.” Organ donation and exotic omnivorousness are ways of connecting with someone or something different, but at the cost of having the ground of identity pulled out from under us. Note, too, the colloquial immediacy of these voices, addressing us without introduction or pretext, speaking out of some peculiar but unspecifiable obsession. Lerner’s narrator has no name, though he pointedly shares attributes with his author: He is also a teacher and a writer, trying to finish a second novel worthy of its unexpectedly large advance. Kleeman’s narrator goes only by A., the initial of her creator’s first name. Then again, her roommate is B. and her boyfriend C.
These narrators aren’t characters embedded in fiction. They are voices that tease a reader into identifying the narrator with the author while casting doubt on that identification. They are voices mostly detached from the telltale texture of family histories, regional loyalties, reliable traits. Settings are stripped down, too. Kleeman never bothers to name the place where her book unfolds. It’s similar, though, to Lerner’s New York, which is yet another iteration of the Western postindustrial space, simultaneously gentrifying and decaying, that serves as a backdrop in the work of a growing group of writers who get associated with one another though they have no obvious affiliation: Joshua Cohen, Teju Cole, Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, Valeria Luiselli, Jenny Offill, Nell Zink.
For some years now, this trend toward what you might call undramatic monologue has flourished under the name “autofiction,” a French neologism dating from the 1970s and denoting a genre that refuses to distinguish between fiction and truth, imagination and reality, by merging the forms of autobiography and novel. The original idea was to move past more than a century of debate about whether realism was just another set of literary conventions gradually wearing thin.
By now the focus is more explicitly on rejecting the goal of generating empathy, and the mission has become associated with two marquee names, authors of works that serve as complementary models or modes for the enterprise. One is Chris Kraus, a dog-eared copy of whose 1997 hybrid memoir-novel, I Love Dick, seems to be in the possession of every ambitious young novelist. The other is the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard, the fifth and penultimate installment of whose acclaimed multivolume My Struggle is now available in English translation. Both of them leave the exploration of multiple possible viewpoints behind. From a similar perch—that of the well-educated, if economically precarious, turn-of-the-millennium artist or intellectual—yet impelled by very different experiences, they start with the extremely personal (and sometimes deliberately perverse) in order to evoke the cold, impassable space between self and other.
Kraus specializes in jump cuts and collage whereas Knausgaard spews forth and sprawls, but both dispense with the intricate plottedness and informational swagger of postwar, postmodern fiction—grist like Pynchon’s lunatic conspiracies or Gaddis’s interest in Heisenbergian physics and financial chicanery. In their place, the foreground is dominated by a set of intimate preoccupations wedged between the psychological and the ethical: how to negotiate the competing demands of ambition, companionship, sexual desire, and intellectually and politically justifiable work. The narrative approach is relentlessly self-conscious self-exposure. I Love Dick is made up largely of a collection of letters written by Kraus and her older husband, Sylvère Lotringer, to the eponymous cultural critic with whom Kraus has fallen in love. At the same time, what speaks to Kraus’s followers is her larger political claim on behalf of marginalized identities—in particular, female and queer—lacking ready cultural access to “an active, public ‘I,’ ” Kraus’s phrase for the unapologetic, expansive first-person voice traditionally reserved for male authority.
In the unadorned prose, by turns slack and jagged, that has become a novelistic signature of our time, Kraus offers up the details of her narrator’s irrepressible subjectivity—lusts, dislikes, swerves of mind, cruelties (nobody, especially Dick, comes off well). She also seizes the right to generalize. The self-disclosure doubles as aphoristic, impersonal declaration, as Kraus explores the theme that has come to characterize one pole of the autofiction enterprise: the self (often female) aloof from social demands and roles, a critical observer of sexual desire, yet prone to obsessions and to a performative brand of revelation perhaps better called testimony than confession. In a typical moment in How Should a Person Be? Sheila Heti captures the defiant shamelessness that is another Kraus legacy: “Most people live their entire lives with their clothes on, and even if they wanted to, couldn’t take them off,” her narrator writes.
Then there are those who cannot put them on. They are the ones who live their lives not just as people but as examples of people. They are destined to expose every part of themselves, so the rest of us can know what it means to be a human.
One could laugh uncomfortably at honesty like this, or ridicule it as egoism, or admire its bluntness. Is this voice observing itself wryly in the process of recording an unguarded thought? Or is it a sincere performance—have we arrived in the era of “The New Universal,” as Kraus titled an essay, when radical self-exposure preempts the communion with multiple, distinct psyches that was Cervantes’s invention? If the “public ‘I’ ” on parade in the pared-down, Kraus-inspired vein of autofiction deflects such questions, Knausgaard invites them as he taps into a contrasting vein. His several-thousand-page epic about the life of a Norwegian writer in his mid-40s reveals its own deep—at first seemingly very different—distrust of empathy. Karl Ove, his narrator, is the type of person left out of Heti’s equation: He wants to take his clothes off, and he does, but the only thing that feels exemplary about being naked is the shame it reveals. Every disclosure in Knausgaard’s work comes bathed in male shame—a self-abasing need to confess, not to marginal status but to the predicament of ordinariness.
Knausgaard pursues few of the philosophical digressions popular in autofiction, although his volumes are each organized by thematic interests, and his latest installment is about writing itself. My Struggle began by pairing death and birth: the slow demise of Karl Ove’s alcoholic, abusive father, and Karl Ove’s burdened life of a parent and writer reluctantly committed to the sticky dailiness of child-raising. The third volume circled back to his childhood during the 1970s, while the fourth covered his adolescence and the turmoil his inchoate desires brought. Now Knausgaard offers one origin story of the autofiction writer, as Karl Ove turns to his early adulthood in the Bergen of the late 1980s and the 1990s.
All along, the narrator’s mostly commonplace dilemmas and disclosures have lacked the radical appeal, the sense of a new form of life being exposed, that leads readers and aspiring writers to Kraus nearly 20 years after her book appeared. Knausgaard makes little effort to generalize, dispenses few aphorisms, and delivers almost no confident axioms about the self and its situation. Instead, in his own brand of slack prose that dwells on what is usually beneath notice—the daily, often tedious minutiae of existence—he unspools a middle-class male life, lived amid relative plenty and familiar heartache.
Eliciting empathy, and the sense of discovery that accompanies it, isn’t the point. What compels the reader is Knausgaard’s total, undiscriminating, ecstatic attentiveness. How much a paperback cost in the late 1980s; the oddly luminous quality of darkness in Bergen; the precautions taken before masturbating in a shared bathroom; how it feels to grasp that one’s father has died—the prose luxuriates in detail, but the detail is dizzyingly undifferentiated from supposedly major drama. Every moment, even of putative boredom, seems to have the sharpness of an adrenaline rush, or the terrifying clarity of recollected shame. The 20- and 30-something Karl Ove of the fifth volume confesses to, among other sins, a habit of drunken infidelity to girlfriends, a bout of canny plagiarism, resentment at the success of friends, a tendency to aloofness. The very ordinariness of his infractions only intensifies his misery. Mundanity, narrated with such hallucinogenic precision, evokes not a unique perspective but the isolation of selfhood as such.
Heti’s narratives of weird sexual obsessions, Kleeman’s account of orgiastic rituals of starvation, Lerner’s riffs on the dilemma of sperm donation, Zink’s portrayal of a young woman’s swerve toward eco-terrorism—the material of the Kraus-led strain of autofiction poses a stark contrast to Knausgaard’s account of Karl Ove’s humdrum travails. Yet curiously enough, the two routes converge. If shamelessness, embraced honestly and fully, throws a life into dramatic and solitary relief, so does shame. What stands out about both approaches is the thrilling and dismaying isolation of the voices as they stage their performances. On the one side, a marginal self claims freedom from invisibility; on the other, a male self owns the wounds of visibility. Both perspectives are so total, so immersive, as to make a reader’s empathy irrelevant. Instead of becoming bridgers of difference, writers along with readers are witnesses to the spectacle of aloneness.
And that, as it turns out, fits Knausgaard’s understanding of how and why he turned to writing, which he ascribes to an obscure, continual impulse to reveal without knowing what one wants revealed. Knausgaard captures this pressure toward fiction in a parable that is grounded in Karl Ove’s childhood, and the injunction to empathy plays no part in the story. Typically enough, the narrative is banal and specific at once. Spending his first night in the childhood home of his girlfriend, surrounded by her family’s alien rhythms, the newly adult Karl Ove remembers the time when he broke his collarbone as a youth. His doctor suggested spending the night in the hospital, but Karl Ove asked to go home, purely to avoid disappointing his mother. Actually, the adventure of a night alone in the hospital was his true desire. Out of the lie, he recalls, emerged a sense of self:
Even then I had felt I was being false, someone who carried thoughts no one else had and which no one must ever know. What emerged from this was myself, this was what was me. In other words, that which in me knew something the others didn’t, that which in me I could never share with anyone else. And the loneliness, which I still felt, was something I had clung to ever since, as it was all I had.
Two kinds of solitude—a night alone in a strange room, an earlier moment when a night alone in a strange room was relinquished through a lie—produce a vocation: to share that which cannot be shared. Knausgaard’s fiction is exactly that, a communication from a voice that distrusts, or disbelieves in, the possibility of communication; an exhibition of a perspective that is true by virtue of not being knowable by anyone else.
In such a situation the desire to write seems as incoherent as it seems pressing. “It was beyond investigation, beyond explanation or justification,” Knausgaard’s narrator says. “There was no rationality in it at all, yet it was self-evident, all-eclipsing: anything other than writing was meaningless for me. Nothing else would be enough, would quench my thirst. But thirst for what?”
So it is with reading autofiction. Why listen to a voice that doesn’t ask for our empathy, that has no linear story to tell? In part because the experience delivers the bitter satisfaction of refusing the pleasure of absorption in pretend worlds. But also because, more crucially, the experience offers a reminder of what the world looks like without a constant awareness of the perspectives of others, whether consoling or besieging. Such reading makes possible a recovery of solitude.
The novel is, and has always been, a moving target. Once a popular idea about its inner nature or social function takes root, some novelists at least can be relied upon to resist it. The choice of monologue over character perspective, or self-display over empathic connection, is such a refusal. It imagines a different task than the one implied by Rorty’s theory of the novel, of providing communitarian glue, of encouraging the comforting acceptance of difference. Instead, it imagines teaching us how to be separate. We read alone, our received story goes, in order to conjure up what others are like and to soothe our isolation. But if we are not isolated? If we are now relentlessly connected, every marginal identity gaining collective recognition, becoming assimilated, ever more rapidly? If that is where we stand, then something like a stubbornly solitary voice may be welcome, even necessary, telling us that what it means to be human—and what may keep us human—is to feel alone in a strange room, with our seclusion the thing that defines and can save us.