Imagine a world without novels. You could still have production, consumption, distribution and government, of course. People would survive, life would go on. But it would be different. If society is to be anything more than “different people living in the same place”, as Leopold Bloom puts it in James Joyce’s Ulysses, it needs cohesion: a sense of identity, solidarity, social trust.
The great virtue of novels is that they deal in empathy. They enable you to see how people live and make choices in a social world, and why they do what they do: the feelings, thoughts and perceptions that shape their actions. Understanding other people’s motives and choices is essential for those being trained for graduate jobs that will involve management, team leadership, appraisal or hiring.
Functioning at any level of seniority as a scientist, manager, accountant, teacher or colleague involves dealing with other people. For the more successful, it also involves making decisions in an increasingly uncertain world. That is why all students, whatever their discipline, should be obliged to read and discuss serious literature in which people make choices.
These could include Ian McEwan’s Atonement, about how we can ever make restitution for the irreversible; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which deals with the pain and possibility of fightback against oppression; or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which explores how the past can overpower the present. But it is impossible to prescribe exactly which titles students should read. The important thing is that they should be asked to discuss what they read, and to explore the range of possible understandings and their justification.
There is also a broader reason why students should read novels. Something has gone wrong with trust in our society. Many people don’t trust experts or policymakers. Of course, a critical stance towards those in a position of power is entirely rational – especially in an era of “alternative facts”. But societies cannot function well without a level of trust among their actors. Politicians must relearn to trust the people with the unvarnished truth. And the people must relearn to trust politicians to tell it.
Social scientists generally distinguish two kinds of trust, which might be termed cold and warm. Cold trust, as the late New York University professor of politics Russell Hardin analysed it, depends on alignment of interests. Adam Smith pointed out that we trust the baker to supply good bread not because she cares about our nutrition but because it’s in her interest to do so. She knows we’ll pay her if we like the bread.
Warm trust works differently. It rests on feelings, beliefs and values. We trust those who seem to care for us, who understand our experience and share our values. A good example would be the doctor whose friendly smile never slips as she puts herself out to help us.
Society depends on a balance between both kinds of trust. We need cold trust to be able to stand back and judge whether what others do will actually work for us. But we also need warm, empathetic trust – especially when we are dealing with uncertainty and simply don’t have good information to judge whether politicians are telling us the truth and whether they are willing or able to do what they say.
The problem is that our public policy apparatus increasingly works through cold trust just at a time when our confidence in what we are told is being eroded by both the blizzard of information of varying quality to which we are exposed and the weakness of governments in the face of a rapidly changing world. Globalisation, changes in employment patterns, population ageing, immigration and the financialisation of the economy – never mind the 2008 recession and the subsequent stagnation – render most of us unable to assess what the right course of action is, or who is telling us the truth.
At a more local level, we have also turned many of our public services over to cold trust systems, using markets rather than professional judgement to allocate health resources or school places, for example. The increasing involvement of commercial providers adds another layer of uncertainty – another trust deficit – as it becomes ever harder to get good information from behind the barrier of commercial confidentiality.
Empathy can be a traitor, of course. A skilled performer can mimic the signals that enhance warm trust: claims about shared experience and values, and appeals to an us-against-them dynamic where “them” is immigrants, the political elite, “benefit scroungers” or experts. Without good information, it’s hard to stand back and critically assess these claims, and the champion of “us” can cloak herself in ersatz warm trust.
But the best way to help people understand and ultimately trust other people is to provide insight into others’ lived experience. And novels are the best tool I know to do that. They can be seen as thought experiments in living different lives. And apart from the trust-enhancing effect, they also offer a vital training opportunity in an uncertain world, in which any individual might end up actually living any number of alternative lives.
That’s why I write novels alongside my work as an academic, studying who gets what, how public policy works out and the alignments of interest that direct it. It’s also why anyone studying for a degree should certainly immerse themselves in the key texts in their field and learn to critically appraise them, but should also read novels to build their understanding of how the world really looks and feels for as many as possible of the people with whom they share it.
Peter Taylor-Gooby is research professor of social policy at the University of Kent and author of The Baby Auction (2016) and Ardent Justice (2017).