Empathy and the Novel

Empathy and the Novel

Empathy and the Novel

Empathy and the Novel

Synopsis

Does empathy felt while reading fiction actually cultivate a sense of connection, leading to altruistic actions on behalf of real others? Empathy and the Novel presents a comprehensive account of the relationships among novel reading, empathy, and altruism. Drawing on psychology, narrative theory, neuroscience, literary history, philosophy, and recent scholarship in discourse processing, Keen brings together resources and challenges for the literary study of empathy and the psychological study of fiction reading. Empathy robustly enters into affective responses to fiction, yet its role in shaping the behavior of emotional readers has been debated for three centuries. Keen surveys these debates and illustrates the techniques that invite empathetic response. She argues that the perception of fictiveness increases the likelihood of readers' empathy in part by releasing them from the guarded responses necessitated by the demands of real others. Narrative empathy is a strategy and subject of contemporary novelists from around the world, writers who tacitly endorse the potential universality of human emotions when they call upon their readers' empathy. If narrative empathy is to be taken seriously, Keen suggests, then women's reading and responses to popular fiction occupy a central position in literary inquiry, and cognitive literary studies should extend its range beyond canonical novels. In short, Keen's study extends the playing field for literature practitioners, causing it to resemble more closely that wide open landscape inhabited by readers.

Excerpt

Empathy and the Novel presents a comprehensive account of the relationships among novel reading, empathy, and altruism, exploring the implications for literary studies of the widely promulgated "empathy-altruism" hypothesis. Social and developmental psychologists, philosophers of virtue ethics, feminist advocates of an ethic of caring, and many defenders of the humanities believe that empathic emotion motivates altruistic action, resulting in less aggression, less fickle helping, less blaming of victims for their misfortunes, increased cooperation in conflict situations, and improved actions on behalf of needy individuals and members of stigmatized groups. The celebration of novel reading as a stimulus to the role-taking imagination and emotional responsiveness of readers—in countless reading group guides and books on the virtues of reading, in character education curricula, and in public defenses of humanities funding—augments the empathy-altruism hypothesis, substituting experiences of narrative empathy for shared feelings with real others. Read Henry James and live well (Love's Knowledge 148); become a better world citizen through canonical novels, philosopher Martha Nussbaum advocates (Cultivating Humanity 90). Discover compassion through "The Lion and the Mouse" or "The Legend of the Dipper" writes William J. Bennett (Children's Book of Virtues 6–7). Shed your prejudices through novel reading, suggests novelist Sue Monk Kidd ("Common Heart" 9). Azar Nafisi affirms, "empathy is at the heart of the novel," and warns, if you don't read, you won't be able to empathize (Reading Lolita 111). Is the attractive and consoling case for fiction implied by these representative views defensible? Surveying the existing research on the consequences of reading, I find the case for altruism stemming from novel reading inconclusive at best and nearly always exaggerated in favor of the beneficial effects of novel reading.

There is no question, however, that readers feel empathy with (and sympathy for) fictional characters and other aspects of fictional worlds. As this book demonstrates, readers' and authors' empathy certainly contributes to the emotional resonance of fiction, its success in the marketplace, and its character-improving reputation. My discussion in chapter 1 of empathy as psychologists understand it and my historical survey in chapter 2 of . . .

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