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  • Writer's pictureMac Ling

Literary Fiction & Empathy

Updated: Jul 5, 2021

How is literary fiction uniquely suited to building empathetic psyches and promoting an open-minded global community?

“Bad writing does nothing, changes nothing, educates no emotions, rewires no inner circuitry—we close its covers with the same metaphysical confidence in the universality of our own interface as we did when we opened it. But great writing—great writing forces you to submit to its vision.”

-Zadie Smith


Reading a book is, in some ways, a staggering feat of physics. Words penned thousands of years ago manage to survive intact, their sealed wisdom delivered to you as familiar black marks on a page. As you read the lines, your brain tingles with a jolt that is a result of a ripple effect begun in a vastly different time and place than the one in which you are sitting. Scientific studies on mirror neurons suggest that when we read about a character stubbing a toe, some of the same regions of our brains light up as when we stub our own toe. So Charles Dickens—writing in 1850—can ignite a snowstorm that your modern physical brain—here in 2020—will experience as cold!

What does it mean that certain humans, by the mere act of writing, can affect the neurobiology of other humans who have yet to be born? And what can we learn from this about the daunting relationship between fiction, human connection, and empathy?

Fiction is packaged with all of the useful things we find in other modes of narrative escape—unfamiliar characters, complicated relationships, and specially drawn worlds. There is, however, a salient distinction. With regard to introspection and interiority, fiction is built differently than film or theater. Film gives us characters from the outside: We get to see how they look and what they say, but we don’t always hear their thoughts, so we fill these thoughts in with what we already know—and this is the power of film. It is, in fact, how small filmic gestures draw their power.

The uniquely redemptive and transformative power of fiction, on the other hand, lies in the opposite: Characters are constructed from within. You slip a character’s skin on like a suit, leave most of what encapsulates your own life behind, and breathe within the context of someone else’s air. You are able to experience thoughts, to hear their every furrow and twist, in a way that your own slate of experiences lacks the fodder to create. When you emerge and attempt to slide back into your old self, you might realize that—oh!—your old beliefs are not quite as snug as they once were.

And thus, a revised self taketh shape.


In his essay “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Vladimir Nabokov states, “The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.” But it seems, sadly, that Mr. Nabokov has waved off the other meaning of “good”—the moral component. Indeed, if we posit that “good” literature is that which enriches us as an interconnected body of humanity (while continuing to deliver an intellectual-aesthetic tingle to the spine, of course), we come closer to a vision of language as an instrument of empathy. After all, it is not merely the act of scrolling the eyes over bits of ink upon the page that can build our social cognition; for the brain to change, it has to do work, too—it must be more than passively transported over fantastical fields.  In this sense, not all reading equally activates empathetic sections of the brain. It is literary fiction (as opposed to non-fiction or genre fiction) that embraces the unconventional and the unpredictable, with its vagaries and its gaps, and keeps the reader struggling to cohere what is not formulaic. The reader of literary fiction must constantly assess, guess, understand, and evaluate the actions of a character. And then, we might surmise (though causality in empathy is notoriously difficult to determine), this reader’s brain is better equipped to understand the living characters who populate our world (cognitive empathy) and, in understanding them, is more willing and able to help them (affective empathy). In her famously brilliant Nobel Lecture, author Toni Morrison emphasizes this social function of good writing: “Being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency – as an act with consequences. Thus, if Dickens can indeed reach out through time and make us feel the cold of snow, the question becomes: Why does he do it? What does it teach us about our collective humanity to feel a distant human’s experience in this way? Reading is, at its root, a mode of human connection—it forces us to confront the imagined world with an anthropological newness, a willingness to absorb and listen before we impose our own opinions and thoughts onto an experience of the world we previously could not have known everything about, because it is the world of someone else's mind. In Morrison’s speech, the children beg the writer to give them fictive entry into her reality: “Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald. Or if, with the reticence of a surgeon’s hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow… But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light.” The inclusion of “our lives” in that first sentence is telling. The writer’s story is as much connected to her audience as it is to her. Indeed, in a world so obsessed with expressive shouting (posting, creating, sharing, blogging), reading can be seen as a passive feat, less valuable somehow in the exchange of meaning. On the contrary, it is the active reader who completes the circle of human interconnection and brings the consequences of the writing into the world by becoming more accepting of difference than she otherwise might have been. Reading forces us to process something as truth despite the fact that we were not the source of it. Morrison leaves us with this unifying definition of this partnership’s essential function: “Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference – the way in which we are like no other life.” We learn, therefore, to step into others’ realities so that they may learn to step into ours. 

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