Literature, Empathy, and Why We Need More

by Katie Poore

I majored in English in college.

This statement tends to get one of two reactions: the first is a vague and uncomprehending stare, the kind that belies complete indifference to anything literary, much less anything academically literary. The second is a furrowed brow, a slight narrowing of the eyes, and the question “Why?” or any of its variants (“What are you planning on doing with that?” “Do you want to be, like, a teacher?” “What can you use that degree for?”).

These reactions are understandable, and even somewhat reasonable. Forbes frequently lists English Literature as one of the worst majors for a return on investment. Comedian John Mulaney lampoons the major in his stand-up act Kid Gorgeous at Radio City, saying of his own English education at Georgetown University: “I paid $120,000 for someone to tell me to go read Jane Austen, and then I didn’t. That’s the worst use of 120 grand I can possibly fathom.”

English degrees, like many humanities degrees, invite skepticism, and in response to these skeptics, English majors have rallied the troops, battened down the hatches, and said with force: “Literature fosters empathy.”

Maybe you’ve heard this before. It’s something that I’ve said innumerable times to anyone who will listen, and something that I’ve heard repeated by classmates and professors and even during my graduation ceremony. The Director of the English Department’s speech read like a rousing, if not hilarious, defense of the major so many of us young undergraduates had naively decided to undertake. It was as if she were trying to say to the parents who had foot their child’s educational bill: “Don’t worry. That money you just paid was worth it. I swear.”

There are of course other oft-cited benefits to the study of literature: enhanced writing and argumentative skills, verbal expression, an analytical sensibility, a general expedience in reading and interpreting the written word. And, of course, critical thinking. Most English majors I know, however, grasp immediately for a virtuous defense before they enumerate the skill set it provides, citing empathy as the thing that, above all, makes this field worth pursuing.

But a storm of personal circumstance and political movement has made me rethink what is valuable about this degree—and about literature, and empathy, in general. As COVID-19 drags on across the globe, I have had more time to read than ever before. I am working remotely at a literary agency. And every day, dozens, if not hundreds, die who shouldn’t have: from the pandemic, from police brutality, from white supremacist violence, from tragedies and injustices that we may never hear of.

It’s of course natural, then, to ask why working for and loving literature feels like such an urgent calling when there is so much unrest, anguish, and rage swirling around the United States. Can fiction really provide any sort of salve for grief and fear in the present moment? And does it really inspire empathy the way we think it does?

Sure, I say. Literature can still inspire empathy. But maybe empathy isn’t the gold standard we have always thought. This exhaustion with empathy is the reason so many beg us to care about victims of police brutality before knowing anything about them. Because if Elijah McClain’s death is most (and perhaps for some, only) tragic when we know he played violin to cats, what does that say about the way we understand the most fundamental truth of humanity: that it is something that, indiscriminately, belongs to all of us?

Relatability is a poor prerequisite for humanity, but it feels codified into the way we as a nation grieve, and in turn into the way many of us demand or turn a blind eye to justice. Kyle Rittenhouse, some say, isn’t all bad because there are photos of him cleaning graffiti off a street wall. Because a dozen minute facts about his life might, for some, coalesce into a grand and baseless defense of murder.

Fiction begins to pale in comparison to these issues of life and death, and as with any ordinary pleasure experienced within an extraordinary time, it feels like a stolen, secretive joy. But fiction, and literature more generally, provide and foster in readers something profoundly deeper, and more useful, than empathy: a conscience that listens, and that, all evidence to the contrary, can fleetingly believe. Because belief is the fundamental root of almost every controversial issue: Me Too, climate change, racism, LGBTQ rights, and even, yes, COVID-19. Think of the battle lines that have been drawn in our various media outlets, between those who think racism has been eradicated and those who know it still exists. Or the climate change deniers and environmental activists. While these lines are largely partisan, they are also lines drawn on the grounds of belief, not just in a certain moral code, but in the very existence of these injustices at all.

I am not here to suggest that progressives are somehow better readers than their conservative counterparts, or that reading is in and of itself a panacea to the vast ideological divides that plague Americans, but only to point toward the willful suspension of disbelief that we practice so frequently while reading. It is not a naïve gesture, but a necessary one. Empathy without belief isn’t empathy at all: it is condescension that presents itself as virtue, a retreat into one’s personal values of self and life that have nothing at all to do with compassion. And empathy relies on having shared experiences; how could a White man really know what it feels like to move through the world in a Black body? How can a White man possible experience empathy for a Black experience?

He can’t. He can only believe and, hopefully, care—not because he recognizes in himself something of what a Black man experiences (how many of us really relate to Katniss Everdeen’s life? Or Elizabeth Bennett’s?), but because of a fundamental willingness to believe in the experiences of someone else.

This isn’t a gesture of blind faith; critical thinking, as I mentioned before, is an integral part of any productive reading experience. But the work of reading, of first believing, and then of interpreting—of locating solutions, complications, confusions—is, I suggest, a model of ideological engagement that translates well into the social, political, and environmental spheres. Empathy ought to be secondary, because it perpetuates the dangerous assumption that one must only care for those with whom they can share experience, and that humanity is predicated off of a person’s prior human acts.

Literature falls under the umbrella of the humanities, and this is no mistake. It is a deeply humanizing field, one that indiscriminately gives voice to monsters like Humbert Humbert and heroes like Frodo Baggins, or in its more contemporary iterations, young women like Yaa Gyasi’s Marjorie in Homegoing and the bewilderingly complex Lenu in Elene Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. I read all of these books, and even if I was at various turns disturbed, delighted, or shocked, I always, at least for a few hours, believed. And with belief comes care—deep, gut-twisting, pulse-racing care. And that, more than anything, is what we need.