Supposedly, one of the benefits of reading books is that they can make you a better, more empathetic person, whether you choose a novel that makes you feel for its characters or a non-fiction book with a moral message. But what are the limits of a writing that tries to provoke empathy in its readers?
When it was released in 2020, Jeanine Cummins’ novel american filth, which follows the harrowing migration of a Mexican mother and son to the United States, was first widely praised, then sharply criticized. As Hannah Giorgis has written, there is an empty “sweet selfishness” in Cummins’ attempts to get his readers to see Latino immigrants as human beings. “What is the use, after all, of simply acknowledging the essential humanity of migrants for those whose lives have been shattered – and in some cases, ended” by US immigration policies? she asks. In Horse, Geraldine Brooks knowingly takes up the challenge of writing beyond racial divides: two of its protagonists are black men. Although she succeeds in winning the sympathy of the reader, this sympathy “falls[s] short, aesthetically as well as politically,” writes Jordan Kisner, as Brooks’ 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 portrayals accomplish?” she writes.
Similarly, non-fictional “anti-racist” books might give readers the mistaken impression that it is enough to learn more about the “lived experiences” of black people – based on an erroneous claim that, as Saida Grundy writes, “wider awareness of systemic racism will drive meaningful social change for black communities.” Literature is not an exchange for politics and “structural repair,” she argues.
Scientists have explored the possible emotional benefits of reading literature. But psychologists in 2016 were unable to replicate the results of a 2013 study that found fiction helped participants sense the emotional states of others, reports Joseph Frankel. And he notes that empathy is too often “confused with the ideas of compassion, morality and kindness”.
Of course, none of this is to say that reading can’t provide an authentic feeling. Idra Novey writes that author Mieko Kawakami, for example, uses imagery to draw her reader into “the emotional intensity of the scenes”. Experiencing this intensity may not make us more empathetic. But it creates a connection, however brief, with a work of art. That may be reward enough.
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What we read
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The doomed project of American dirt
“For those whose lives are not fundamentally shaped by the indifference of others, empathy can be an alluring and self-aggrandizing goal. It demands little of both author and reader.
White Author, Black Paragons
“Brooks’ sympathies are obviously with them, and ours too. But sympathy seems an insufficient 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.
Getty / The Atlantic
The false promise of anti-racism books
“When offered in the place of concrete policies regarding equity, awareness can actually undermine Black progress by presenting increased knowledge as the balm for centuries of abuse…In the form of public statements company-sponsored conversations, awareness is often toothless.”
Reading Literature Won’t Give You Superpowers
“Why psychologists, the media and laypeople are so interested in the possible benefits of reading fiction remains an open question. As [Arnold] Weinstein said those who, both inside and outside the humanities, have attributed moral benefits to literature and art as a “rescue operation” for these disciplines to a when their value is called into question.
Jacob Aue Sobol / Magnum
Every sentence is the one you can feel
“Kawakami has found a meaningful answer to the question of what to do with feelings. She publishes them in novels.
About Us: This week’s newsletter is written by Maya Chung. The book she reads next is Customsby Solmaz Sharif.
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