The joy of literature

by Thomas R. Wells

ZzzEvery week or so a literature professor publishes an eloquent essay about what literature is good for. Here's a nice example. The backdrop is the decades long decline of literature degree programmes in the Anglophone world. This is why you need us!, they argue, somewhat plaintively.

These essays tend to circle around the same handful of arguments. An especially prominent theme, most frequently associated with Martha Nussbaum's defence of the humanities, is that literature is good for us because it promotes empathy, and the practice of empathy is the heart of liberal ethics and the functioning of civilised society.

Unfortunately, defending literature in this way multiplies rather than reduces philistinism. By mistaking means and ends it excludes the very heart of the matter from consideration. The joy of literature is transmuted into duty. This is in line with how professional academics understand literature – as their daily work, albeit work that they love. But if this is how the people who claim to love literature talk about it, no wonder reading is in decline.


Whether you call it neoliberalism or something else, we are certainly living under a cult of egoistic instrumental value in which the value of anything depends on what one can do or get with it. The transformation of university education from a kind of extended holiday camp of self-development to a rational investment in human capital formation is part of this. Unsurprisingly, students are responding by switching from academic subjects and the humanities to vocational subjects and STEM.

These arguments for the usefulness of literature are in part a leftist response to the neoliberal framing of education. Look, they say, literature will make you a better person even if you can't make money from it. All that practice in empathising with strangers' minds will make you wiser and a morally better person. And it will make our society as a whole kinder and more tolerant. The left's pitch for literature, and culture in general, is that it promotes civilisation: a society whose prosperity is measured on relational criteria like solidarity rather than by the sum of the material wealth of its individuals.

I'm not entirely against that kind of argument, up to a point and in its place. But I think using literature in this way does it a disservice. It too closely resembles recommending sport as exercise with health benefits, or religion as a place to make friends and feel part of a community. The neoliberal critics of literature focus on the opportunity cost of the study of literature. Every hour spent this way is an hour lost to some more productive purpose, like studying finance with an eye to a Wall Street job. But the supposed defenders of literature have accepted the instrumentalist terms of the debate, and merely dispute whether non-pecuniary achievements should also be counted.

The central mistake is the confusion of means and ends. Literature may do other things for us too, just as video games may teach hand-eye coordination and team-work. But it is primarily a form of entertainment, like roller-coasters. It should be analysed under consumption not production.

Novels, for example, are thrilling out of body adventures. Genre novels, like romance or detective stories, take us on a familiar excursion that we nevertheless enjoy revisiting, much as we may enjoy going to the beach on a sunny day or strapping into a rollercoaster. We know more or less what we're going to get but we can still relish the ritualised unfolding of the set plot points. Literary novels may be defined by their promise of a less predictable 'designer' experience and the related ceding of control from reader to author. They offer a journey into the unknown that may leave us profoundly changed on our return.

Although novels are best understood as entertainment, and thus as competing for our attention with other forms of entertainment such as movies or pop songs, novels do some things that nothing else can. One good definition of the novel is 'events in the mind of an imaginary person'. While movies can also provide an out of body experience of an impossible world – indeed they can bring the impossible more vividly to life than many people's imaginations are capable of – they cannot reach underneath the appearances. Only novels can give us the impossible experience of the superpower of seeing into other people's minds.


If reading novels is so fun, why don't people read them anymore? One reason is that we have more alternatives these days for entertainment, which some people prefer, and also that the kind of uninterrupted private leisure time that novels require is less common. But another reason is surely the academic defenders of literature themselves.

First, they exaggerate the capacity of literature, for example that is a source of truth

There is an obvious proof that the great novelists knew more about human psychology than any social scientist who ever lived. If psychologists, sociologists, or economists understood people as well as George Eliot or Tolstoy did, they could create portraits of people as believable as Middlemarch's Dorothea Brooke or Anna Karenina. But no social scientist has ever come close. (Gary Saul Morson)

This is fanciful. Novelists may be better than academic experts at communicating to the general public, but they themselves have no particular access to the Truth. If you want the truth about psychology, study that – not George Eliot or Jane Austen. If you want philosophical analysis, read a philosopher not some amateur with a nice turn of phrase. Fiction is fun because it is not true, and not merely because it also communicates truths that are otherwise hard to express. If you read it looking for Truth you are likely to miss out on its pleasures and see its playfulness as irresponsibility.

Second, literary studies academics relate to their texts in a rather indirect, intellectual way. I am not disputing that the academic study of literature can have its own distinctive pleasures – I had some fun reading Jane Austen as a moral philosopher – but they are not the kind of pleasures most people enjoy. The books that receive the highest praise are often not much fun at all to read. They are important for other reasons. For example, for their introduction of new literary techniques which influenced the development of literature, such as Joyce's Ulysses. Or because of their historical or political significance, like Uncle Tom's Cabin. Or because they advance some leftist political theme, like the ghastly Bertolt Brecht. Or because they make a handy hook for a pet theory, such as Martha Nussbaum's use of Dickens' Hard Times to criticise the heartlessness of utilitarian economics.

The domination of the academic approach to literature, as taught to the English lit students who will be our future school-teachers, serves to exclude the most natural and accessible pleasures of literature, the thrill of exploring impossible worlds. Thus, one reason most people don't read novels anymore is that we have been taught since highschool a way of reading that only a few can enjoy. I can't help but wonder if the future of literature would be more secure if it were as academically neglected as the thriving parts of popular culture.

The other problem with this attitude is that once one looks at literature as an object of study – as something to write essays about theories about – it is hard to avoid being drawn into a dispute about the productive value of different university study programmes, especially in the age of austerity. And it is easy to forget that literature is something distinct from its study, as music is distinct from musicology.


We spend far too much of our so limited time getting ready to live our lives rather than living them. Literature is a poor substitute for philosophy or history or ethnography or psychology. It is frankly silly to defend it on those grounds. Nor is reading it some kind of civilisational responsibility we owe to ourselves and our society. Literature is worth our time, as friendship is worth our time, because it the kind of thing a well-lived life is made out of. It is a destination in itself.