Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Good Read?

In one of my first postings on this blog I suggested that while it is a truism that reading literature tends naturally to do good by extending our sympathy for other humans, that assumption is “untested—and perhaps untestable.”* I recently discovered that some scholars now claim to have tested this very assumption, and to have evidence that it does indeed hold up. As Keith Oatley reports ("The Science of Fiction," New Scientist 25, June 2008), scientifically conducted studies have now concluded not only that regular readers of fiction tend to be more empathetic than other people (which could of course be merely a matter of correlation), but also that when tested immediately after reading a work of fiction—in this case, Chekhov’s “Lady with a Lapdog”—readers exhibit reactions that are more empathetic than those of a control group who are given a version of the same narrative written “in documentary form.” Evidently we are led as we read fiction to empathize with the characters in ways that we do not in reading non-fiction; the suggestion is that this leaves as a residue a slightly increased tendency to empathize with real human beings once we finish reading. “Readers found it easier to identify with the characters in the literary story than in the documentary version. By empathizing with these characters, readers became a bit more like them.”

The researchers caution that the effect has not yet been proven to be long-lived. Nevertheless, these are very interesting findings. The full scientific evidence is, I gather, to be found in Creativity Research Journal, vol. 21—which I have not seen, and I should perhaps therefore reserve judgment. But if it seems plausible that reading fiction could affect readers in this sort of way, it also seems to me highly doubtful that such a study could possibly prove the existence of an inherent improving tendency in the act of reading literature. I can quite believe that reading Chekhov might tend to make the average reader more empathetic; Chekhov is surely among the kindest and most understanding of authors, and his characters, generally of a mixed rather than than a saintly or heroic nature, are drawn in ways that lead us to feel for them in sometimes unexpected ways--ways that can surely expand our emotional capacities. But does that constitute, as Oatley claims, “scientific evidence that reading fiction does have psychological benefits”? That is can have, yes. But that it does have, by its very nature? What happens when we read James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, as I did recently? It’s written from the point of view of Frank Chambers—a drifter who murders a harmless garage owner in order to further the progress of a sexually charged but otherwise empty adulterous love. It’s a powerful first-person narrative, and certainly as I read it I was led to some extent to empathize with Chambers—simply through the mechanism of being made privy to his murderous intentions before he acts on them. As readers most of us find it hard to resist that sort of forward narrative pull. (Much the same thing happens when we read Macbeth, I would argue.) It may lead us to empathize with the character who is driving the narrative—but what are we empathizing with? I found that I felt strangely almost emptied of feeling after having read The Postman Always Rings Twice—which I guess may count as evidence that I became a bit more like Frank Chambers through the experience of reading. But being led to empathize with evil, to feel temporarily emptied of emotions such as kindness and pity, is not, I suspect, what Oatley has in mind when he writes of fiction having psychological benefits.

Whether you agree with all the conclusions or not, all this is highly interesting stuff; I look forward to reading more about the efforts of Oatley and others to conduct empirical investigations into literature’s effects.

* In contrast, I suggested that there is a great deal of empirical evidence that books such as The Jungle, Mary Barton, Oliver Twist, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Black Beauty can help to bring about change in very focused ways—helping to persuade readers of the evils of slavery, of the need to change the way horses are treated, of the need to provide better for the poor, and so on.

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