“It's a hornet's nest, that question,” said Arnold Weinstein, a professor of comparative literature at Brown University. What gets to be called “literary” changes over time along with shifting ideas of social and political values, he said. Weinstein pointed to the controversy around Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch as an example. After it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, many critics complained the book wasn’t “serious” enough to merit the award.
It’s still an open question why psychologists, the media, and laypeople alike are so interested in the possible benefits of reading fiction. As 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. It’s hard not to see arguments that literature might make people more empathetic, more moral, or more socially adept as a corrective to the perceived lack of “return on investment” when it comes to the arts.
“I don’t hope or believe that social psychology is needed to justify the humanities,” Kidd told me. But in a culture where science is sometimes treated with more gravity than the humanities, this research can be used to do exactly that. In a recent piece for The Atlantic, a high school English teacher leans on psychological studies of a similar strain to strengthen his argument that students are emotionally enriched by reading fiction.
Even if literature fostered a stronger sense of theory of mind, or even empathy, Weinstein remains skeptical of what that would mean: “People used to comment that the people who ran the concentration camps probably knew Goethe and Schiller by heart,” he told me. While literature does produce “a kind of empathy,” he says, “the social uses and ramifications of that are extremely open to question.”
As the psychologist Paul Bloom writes, the benefits of empathy are sometimes seen as “too obvious for justification,” too easily conflated with the ideas of compassion, morality, and kindness. To Bloom, empathy is instead an emotional resource that has its right place and time—whether it does any good or fills a need depends on the context. Among the many calls to empathy after the election, some have aptly pointed out that empathy (both by psychology’s definition, along with the other values of the high-road that get attached to the word) is a two-way street. Calling on one side to empathize with the other, while probably not a bad thing, is just one example of the limits of relying on an overly idealized vision of what empathy can achieve.
There are many things literature can ‘do.’ It can give voice to perspectives that are often silenced, offer refuge, and allow readers “try on” the lives of others. But this is slow work that depends so much on social circumstance. No reader, writer, or book exists in a vacuum. Trying to reduce the process of reading to a snapshot task leaves out some of this context.