But what of literature’s capacity to bring about social change? To what extent can fiction change hearts and minds about real world issues? And can the effects be long-lasting? It has often been said that novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Jungle caused significant changes in many readers’ attitudes—and in many readers’ behavior. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that this is so. There can be no doubt that such works helped to bring change, but studies of their impact sometimes suggest that they did so not so much by directly changing attitudes as by providing encouragement to the already committed, and by heightening the level of controversy.
One recent novel written with the explicit purpose of helping to bring about social change is my own Animals: A Novel (Véhicule Press edition 2009, Soft Skull/Counterpoint edition 2010); that book aims to engage readers imaginatively over the issue of cruelty in factory farming. In the seven years since the book was published, dozens of people have reported in conversation that they found the experience of reading the book quite powerful; several have reported in writing that the experience helped to change their attitudes, their behavior, or both.
The present study seeks to broaden the range of respondents, and also to go beyond the anecdotal. I contacted as many readers of Animals as possible, and asked them to complete a survey concerning the effect the experience of reading the book has had on their behavior, and on their attitudes. All responses were provided anonymously. The hope was that the survey results would quantify in a somewhat more scientific fashion than the anecdotal responses had done the degree to which the experience of reading this literary work has contributed to specific changes in attitudes (and/or behavior) on the part of readers—and also the extent to which any changes have been lasting.
Let me turn first to what the respondents say on the question of attitudes—the eighth and last question on the survey. Here the results seem unequivocal: 65% of those answering this question (and 59% of all respondents) indicated that the experience of reading the book had contributed either “to a considerable degree” (35%) or “at least to some slight degree” (30%) to an increase in their level of concern for the welfare of non-human animals.
Attitudes are one thing; behavior is quite another. One may come more and more strongly in one’s belief system to be in favor, for example, of ending slavery while still—until the day that happens—remaining a slave-owner oneself. And one may be in favor of ending the cruelties of factory farming while continuing to consume the products of that cruelty every day. But it would seem from the answers to questions 5 and 6 that the experience of reading Animals had just as much of an effect on behavior as on attitudes: 70% of those answering Question 5 (and 64% of all respondents) indicated that the experience of reading the book had contributed either “to a considerable degree” (15%) or “to at least some degree” (55%) to this change. Moreover, 65% of those answering Question 6 (and 59 % of all respondents) indicated that the experience of reading the book had contributed to a lasting effect on their behavior.
“Lasting for how long?” one may fairly ask. Here too the survey results provide a fairly clear answer. The vast majority of respondents were people who had read the novel at least three years before responding; fully 90% of respondents read the book either when it first appeared in 2009-2010 (73%) or in the years 2011-2012 (18%). The survey is thus able to provide useful information as to how lasting the effect may have been—as would not have been the case if, for example, 90% of respondents had read the novel less than six months before responding.
Questions 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7 are designed to explore with more precision first, the question of how long lasting any effect on behavior may be; and second, the question of the degree to which respondents’ behavior has actually changed. Questions 2, 3, and 4 ask the same set of questions for different times: before reading the novel, six months to a year after reading the novel, and today (which, for 90% of respondents, is at least three years after reading the novel).
What is perhaps most striking in the answers to these questions, given the high percentages of respondents who reported changed behavior, is how little actual change in behavior is reported. Particularly given that the sample responding to the survey is almost certainly skewed towards readers who were strongly influenced by the book, one might have expected there to be a more dramatic shift. The shifts indicated here are relatively modest. In percentage terms, the reduction in those describing themselves as in one of the two categories least concerned about animal welfare may be striking—the number drops in half—but when the absolute numbers are from 6 respondents to 3 respondents, it’s hard to portray the change as earth-shattering. Nor is the change at the other end particularly dramatic—the number reporting themselves to be either vegetarian or vegan increasing from 7 to 9, or from 31.82 to 40.91 per cent of the total. Those in the middle—omnivores who “to a considerable degree” limit their consumption of animal products “for reasons relating to the treatment of non-human animals” continue to constitute the largest block. The composition of that block has presumably shifted over time, with some of those who have moved out of the lowest two groups entering this larger middle group, as those who become vegetarians or vegans leave it. But there is also, of course, a good deal of space for movement within the large, middle group. One may move from eating free-range meat frequently to eating meat only if it is free range (and from a farmer one trusts to treat the animals well before they are killed), and still stay within that broad, middle category. One may move from very occasionally choosing dairy products that one knows are from organic farms where the cows are treated well to consuming dairy products only if those conditions are met—and again, stay entirely in that broad middle category. One respondent emailed me after she had completed the survey to comment on this sort of nuanced point:
The survey is lacking some possibilities, as you probably know. For instance, I experimented with vegan products, but I couldn't develop a taste for some of them. Nevertheless, I try to make more vegan choices in my diet, and buy only organic products (particularly milk) approved by Natural Grocers. … [I]t was not solely reading your book that caused these changes, though it is very powerful.The answers to Questions 2, 3, and 4, then, are consistent with the responses given to Question 7. The reported changes in behavior are not always large, and the degree to which the experience of reading Animals contributed to those changes is not always great. But for most respondents there was a change, and for most respondents the experience of reading the novel did contribute to that change.
That is to put everything in the past tense. We should look too at the responses to Question 7: might the experience of reading Animals contribute to some future change in behavior for readers? Very interestingly, 6 people—some 30% of the total number of respondents—thought it quite possible that the experience of reading Animals would contribute to some future change in their behavior—and a further 7 did not rule out the possibility entirely. In total, then, some 65% of respondents did not rule out the possibility that the experience of reading a book could influence their behavior in the future. If we recall here the results of Question 1, we realize that of those 13 respondents, at least 11must have read the book in 2012 or earlier—at least three years before completing this survey. And a number of those people had clearly been altering their behavior already, in part at least as a result of the experience of reading this text. Even three, four, or five years after reading a book, in other words, many think it still possible for the experience of reading a novel to exert a further effect on their behavior.
This may seem implausible—I would have thought it implausible myself many years ago. But in fact it accords entirely with my own experience—with both fiction and non-fiction. It was I think in 1991 that I read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. This was my introduction to the atrocities of factory farming; I was shocked, and I am sure deeply influenced. But to what extent did I change my behavior? At first, not at all. And when changes in my behavior did come, they were very gradual; beginning in the late 1990s, I began to eat free-range meat and free-range eggs when I could, and dairy milk from cows who I believed to have been relatively well treated. In the early years of this century I became more and more passionate about the evils of factory farming. In 2005 the outline of a story that could dramatize those evils came to me, and I began working on Animals. When the novel was published in 2009 I still believed that the novel’s essential argument was against factory farming—not against eating animal products. A number of readers suggested that in fact the afterword I had written went against the grain of the story—that Animals constituted an argument not just against the evils of factory farming, but against the human practice of consuming other animals. Over the years since then, I have come to agree with them. (When the next edition of Animals is published, it will carry a very different afterword—or no afterword at all.) Both with my experience of reading Animal Liberation, then, and with my experience of writing Animals, I found that experiencing a book could continue to affect my behavior many years afterwards. * * * For most of the past two centuries the tide in literary criticism and theory—indeed, in literary circles of all sorts—has run heavily against didacticism. Interestingly, even those who have endorsed the notion that all literature is political have been carried with the tide; if a book is described as a powerful political statement, that may safely be taken to mean simply that the book embraces a world view broadly critical of establishment values—not that the book aims to prompt us quite specifically to change our behavior (to devote more time and money than we have been to helping the homeless, for example, or the poor in the developing world, or young women who are being denied an education, or gays and lesbians who in so much of the world are still denied any rights whatsoever). Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, on the other hand, or Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, are political in a very different sense; like Animals, they were written with the intention of changing readers’ attitudes –and behavior—in quite specific ways. They are examples of literature that is not just political, but didactic. There are some signs that the tide in literary circles is beginning to turn. Black Beauty and The Jungle now appear frequently on university courses—as works of aesthetic as well as historical interest. And some of the leading lights of literary criticism and theory have begun to openly acknowledge the possibility that didactic literature can also be good literature. Here, for example, is Terry Eagleton, writing in 2012: That even a touch of didacticism is distasteful is as received a judgement for the literary establishment as is the suggestion that Shakespeare wrote some pretty impressive stuff. But it is surely not the case [that didacticism should be regarded as inherently distasteful]. “Didactic” simply means a matter of teaching and there is no reason why all teaching should be hectoring or doctrinaire. Brecht’s Lehrstücke, Lancelot Andrewe’s sermons, and William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell are didactic works which are also potent pieces of art. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not an embarrassingly second-rate novel because it has a specific moral purpose—so does Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” Tolstoy’s Resurrection, and Orwell’s Animal Farm—but because of the way it executes it. (The Event of Literature, 68-69) Yet Uncle Tom’s Cabin is widely assumed to have succeeded in its didactic purpose at least as well as did any of these other works. Is Eagleton wrong about Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Is it, as some others have suggested in recent years, a far better novel aesthetically than the twentieth century took it to be? Or, if Eagleton is right, does bad literature work best when it comes to doing good? Those are some of the larger questions that seem to me to be worthy of discussion. But to do so in an informed way, it seems to me that we should try to find out more about what literature can actually do by way of changing human attitudes—and human behavior. This paper represents a very small step in that direction.