Why Read Fiction in a Bad World?

It's not because fiction teaches us empathy

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Morten Høi Jensen

In 1932, Samuel Beckett paid a visit to the Paris apartment of Walter Lowenfels, an American poet and member of the Communist Party. Sunk in a corner of the living room, looking like “a forest ranger in a Western,” Beckett listened forbearingly as Lowenfels lurched into passionate speech about the need for anonymity in the arts and the terrible material conditions of society. Increasingly frustrated by the silence of his guest, Lowenfels suddenly exclaimed: “You sit there saying nothing while the world is going to pieces. What do you want? What do you want to do?” To which Beckett offered the languid response: “Walter, all I want to do is sit on my ass and fart and think of Dante.”

Beckett’s remark is flippant and was clearly intended to be. (Flippancy in the face of humorless self-importance being always funny). But it is seriously flippant, by which I mean that it contains an implied challenge to the question posed, as if to say: What of it? What exactly is wrong with wanting to read Dante even as the world is falling to pieces?

I thought of Beckett’s quip this past Friday when a number of writers came far less flippantly to the defense of fiction in response to a now-deleted tweet from Miami Herald investigative reporter Julie K. Brown. “So I’m going to get slammed for this,” she said, “but I have to ask how can you be obsessed by fiction – yes “we” get how important it is – but at a time like this? I’m reading history books about how the fuck it came to this.” As she later clarified, “a time like this” referred to the unfolding horrors of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

I have no desire to “slam” Brown any more than she already has been; in fact, I would go so far as to say that the instinct to question the reading of fiction in troubled times is, on some level, an understandable, if clumsy, expression of frustration and powerlessness. (Though one must wonder: when is it not “a time like this,” somewhere out there in the world?) The reason Brown’s tweet is worth dwelling on is because some version of it seems always dormant, primed and braced for the next geopolitical disaster. Recall the sense of futility that infected a number of well-known novelists in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. “The so-called work in progress had been reduced, overnight, to a blue streak of pitiable babble,” as Martin Amis put it. Jay McInerney agreed: “I don’t know how I’m going to be able to go back to this novel I’m writing,” he told Bret Easton Ellis. Ian McEwan, writing the day after the attacks, went so far as to lament the inadequacy of our imaginations in the face of powerful reality: “Even the best minds, the best or darkest dreamers of disaster on a gigantic scale, from Tolstoy and Wells to Don DeLillo, could not have delivered us into the nightmare available on television news channels yesterday afternoon.” (Perhaps unsurprisingly, all three novelists would go on to write fiction about 9/11).

How can we go on “obsessing” over fiction in these troubled times? The question, of course, is loaded with the assumption that the reading of fiction serves no purpose, or that the purpose it serves is inadequate. Indignantly, a number of writers responded to Brown’s tweet by affirming fiction’s ability to make us into better, kinder people — that stickiest of contemporary literary cliches. “Reading fiction increases empathy, there have been numerous studies proving this,” one individual replied; “The idea that reading fiction does not engender empathy is deeply condescending, and also not very thoughtful?” countered another.

Perhaps anxiety about the purpose of fiction is really just a displaced anxiety about the purpose of life.

It’s true that, in recent years, cognitive psychologists have taken an interest in the way reading fiction works on the mind. In 2013, to give just one well-known example, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano published a research study claiming to show that fiction can improve our social skills and make us more empathetic. “The same psychological processes are used to navigate fiction and real relationships,” Kidd subsequently told The Guardian. “Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience, it is a social experience.” (The critic Jennifer Wilson, writing in Bookforum, has called this cottage industry the “Empathy Industrial Complex.”)

These studies, whatever their merits, can be refuted by stating what seems to me a fairly obvious, incontrovertible point: throughout history, a lot of very evil, cruel, or simply unkind people have read — and in some cases even written — a lot of very good fiction. And this discrepancy between artistic intelligence and personal cruelty is, of course, one of fiction’s great, enduring subjects. I have always been struck by this anecdote from Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: while awaiting trial, Adolf Eichmann was handed a copy of Lolita by a prison guard. He indignantly returned it two days later, saying: “Quite an unwholesome book.” The architect of the industrial murder of 6 million people was offended, was made uncomfortable, by a novel.

This is not to say that fiction has no effect on our moral imagination. The philosopher Elaine Scarry, in On Beauty and Being Just, makes a persuasive and impassioned argument for the ways in which art can lead us to a more “capacious regard” for the world around us, as well as interrupt what she calls our “daily unmindfulness of the aliveness of others.” This is surely true, and a good deal different from claiming some scientific basis for fiction’s ability to make us kinder. Scarry’s argument also has the virtue of being itself very literary (“our daily unmindulness of the aliveness of others” is wonderfully expressed), and is therefore to be judged by the beauty of its effort as much as the force of its arguments.

Still, I suspect that the rush to defend the reading of fiction by stressing its potential for moral improvement is little more than the confession of a guilty conscience. Deep down, the reader is secretly embarrassed by her hedonistic indulgence of this purposeless pastime — the horror of horrors in our rational, utilitarian age. Why am I curled up with Journey to the End of the Night when I could be standing in a soup kitchen, or knocking on doors for some worthy political cause? In response to this question, would any reader seriously think to answer: because reading Céline will make me a better person and enable me to bring about more good in the world?

Perhaps anxiety about the purpose of fiction is really just a displaced anxiety about the purpose of life. If so, the suspicion of fiction is obviously misdirected. (It is not the novelist’s fault that God is dead). But, for my own part, anxiety about the purpose of life is one of many excellent reasons for reading fiction. In Letters to a Young Novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa argues that the source of the literary vocation is rebellion: “Why would anyone who is deeply satisfied with reality, with life as it is lived, dedicate himself to something as insubstantial and fanciful as the creation of fictional realities?” And by extension, why would anyone satisfied with reality read it? Fiction satisfies, intermittently and imperfectly, a metaphysical longing, a desire to extend life beyond its arbitrary limits. Without it, life just wouldn’t be enough — “life as it is lived” would be unbearable. As Gore Vidal put it: “The creation of a work of art, like an act of love, is our one small “yes” at the center of a vast “no.””

In the end, defending the reading of fiction is difficult because one invariably ends up merely describing fiction, which is tautological; or the defense becomes too narrow or factional, as when Nabokov excommunicates writers of what he calls “topical trash.” Perhaps, then, the question of the purpose or value of fiction is better left alone. There are a thousand reasons why sitting on your ass reading Middlemarch or Invisible Man or Don Quixote is a perfectly good way to spend your time, no matter what is going on in the world. But if you really need a reason, if you absolutely insist, then allow me to offer just one, from Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March:

It takes a time like this for you to find out how sore your heart has been, and, moreover, all the while you thought you were going around idle terribly hard work was taking place. Hard, hard work, excavation and digging, mining, moling through tunnels, heaving, pushing, moving rock, working, working, working, working, working, panting, hauling, hoisting. And none of this work is seen from the outside. It’s internally done. It happens because you are powerless and unable to get anywhere, to obtain justice or have requital, and therefore in yourself you labor, you wage and combat, settle scores, remember insults, fight, reply, deny, blab, denounce, triumph, outwit, overcome, vindicate, cry, persist, absolve, die and rise again. All by yourself! Where is everybody? Inside your breast and skin, the whole cast.

Morten Høi Jensen is the author of A Difficult Death: The Life and Works of Jens Peter Jacobsen. He lives in Brooklyn.