Empathy? Not in my book

The fashionable idea that reading novels could improve students’ fellow feeling bears little scrutiny, says Seán Williams

June 8, 2017
Nate Kitch illustration (8 June 2017)
Source: Nate Kitch

In the 18th century, novels seemed scandalous to many because, above all, they were about subjective experience. Impressionable young men and women, sitting on newfangled sofas gripped by pages of sentimentalism, were moved with pity and pain. Empathising with the plight of so many of those sorry literary protagonists, readers called for social change. Worse still, they fell in love.  

Flick through to today and, once again, the argument that reading novels is an exercise in empathy is everywhere. Except now it is a virtue, not a vice. In his recent book The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society, Peter Bazalgette, former head of the Arts Council, wrote that art makes us more empathetic, kinder, civilised. And, in Times Higher Education, Peter Taylor-Gooby has told us that literature engenders what he calls “empathetic trust”. Serious novels should be read by students on all degree courses, he says, enhancing their training for the uncertain world into which they will embark as graduates. Page-turners from the literary canon will enable undergraduates to feel the perils of social reality, Taylor-Gooby implies, while textbooks can only teach them to understand them.

As a literary scholar, I should be delighted that – finally – my subject is thought to be of such fundamental significance. And I have no desire to retain some interpretative control over literature; I’d be happy if novels were read widely in seminars beyond literary studies. Indeed, good literature is so relevant to our everyday experience (even to our very humanity) that it can be broadly discussed in book groups and among friends while at the same time being structurally or historically complex enough to benefit from professional reading, too. So I don’t want to appear possessive. But please: I’ve had enough of the empathy argument.

You don’t have to sit through “Narratology 101” to be aware that not all narrators are reliable and that some serious literature might not intend to incite empathy at all. And you might well have thought of an outrageous work yourself already. Take Edgar Hilsenrath’s 1971 novel The Nazi and the Barber. Written by a Jewish Holocaust survivor, it adopts the perspective of an SS officer who kills his Jewish childhood friend (along with hundreds of others) and adopts his identity in order to set up a new, post-war life as a former concentration camp victim – in Israel.

To be fair, you can always find counter-examples to any generalisation. And much literature does evoke our empathy. But it does so not only for better, but also for worse. Empathy for the narrator and protagonist of Lolita, Humbert Humbert, may be a good thing, or it may be harmful. Neither of these effects, in and of itself, should be our reason for reading, however. 

The notion that serious literature should encourage empathy is so entrenched that it affects our ability to select novels to read or study – and so our wider appreciation of what reading is can be skewed. Recently, I published a short essay about the current Swiss-German literary scene and how its gamut of novels – many of them very good, and all empathy-inducing – can be understood as a corrective to Switzerland’s political shift towards a stronger anti-immigration stance. But shortly after my article appeared in print, I realised that I’d overlooked a 2016 novel written by a Swiss author with some sympathy for a politician who adopts a hard line against an unofficial refugee encampment in a fictional German city: Ursula Fricker’s Lügen von gestern und heute [Lies of Yesterday and Today]. Overall, the narrative comes out in favour of cold realism and hard compromises; it doesn’t feel especially kind to refugees or activists. How had I missed it? At first I was mortified. As I frantically searched through the Swiss-German and German broadsheets, though, I found mention of it only in a handful of provincial papers. Given the political momentum that anti-immigration policies had gained in Switzerland, this near-silence was striking. 

The novels that academics would set for the types of courses Taylor-Gooby envisages would be picked consciously – even conscientiously – for their status as “empathy enhancers”, probably set loose from their historical and cultural contexts and read as stories for self-improvement. This sounds to me like literature being used for a preconceived ideological outcome by the do-goody Left. It is a very illiberal idea (moral prescriptivism, no less!) and quite unintellectual. Literature is more than mere examples of social problems or possible lives. That’s its great strength – and a cause for scepticism. Novels mustn’t be instrumentalised: they should be read with attention to their own, as well as our own, contexts.

What’s more, to select literature with the intention of evoking specific student and teacher responses to issues on a syllabus could be risky. People don’t always respond the way that we expect them to. This fact is illustrated in another recent novel: French writer Michel Houellebecq’s Submission (2015). This takes the perspective of a literary professor who is convinced that the singular power of literature lies in its ability to enhance empathy and connection with other human minds. The highly controversial narrative ends, however, with the apathetic academic embracing a future in which France is run by conservative Islamists because of his appreciation of good pay and his new right to practise polygamy.

It’s an awful book of sensationalist satire, exoticism and misogyny. But it allows me to finish with a hyperbolic warning fit for the 18th century. Conviction in our own powers of empathy through reading can be dangerous at times – and self-delusional.

Seán Williams is vice-chancellor’s fellow in languages and cultures at the University of Sheffield and a BBC/Arts and Humanities Research Council New Generation Thinker 2016. 

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