Review: Empathy and the Novel by Suzanne Keen 2007 Oxford University Press

Although proclamations of the novel’s imminent demise seem to be an annual occurrence–see last year’s eulogy–in the 21st century, attacks on the novel usually come in the form of radical apathy (people just don’t read). Defenders of the novel usually respond with radical fervor, lobbing specious exaggerations about the novels importance. But these often superbly articulated encomiums are little more than lances aimed at unperturbed windmills. And if I may continue the allusion to that first and best modern novel: with Empathy and the Novel, Suzanne Keen is like the faithful Sancho, applying herself to identifying the erroneous assumptions but never leaving the side of intrepid bibliophiles.


I am such a bibliophile, bookish even. My reading, whether it be Dante Alighieri or Laurell K. Hamilton, is motivated by a belief in the redemptive capacity of narrative. My writing is, likewise, motivated by my belief in love and the power of stories to engender love in myself and my readers. Empathy and the Novel challenges these beliefs and in doing so enriches and advances them.


Keen explores the tangled and subtle relationship between empathy and the novel from the perspectives of both readers and writers. Furthermore, she delineates the surprisingly tenuous connection between empathy and altruistic action.


Empathy, the spontaneous sharing of feeling with another, is a primitive response that can lead to more complex emotional responses. Empathy itself is a derivative of emotional contagion, the automatic mimicry of another’s emotional expressions, a capacity shared by humans and some animals. Keen challenges the assumption that human empathy leads to altruism. Empathy may foster complex emotions such as sympathy, guilt, and even apathy, but none of these emotions entail altruistic action.


A study by Samuel and Pearl Oliner on holocaust rescuers showed no marked difference in empathy levels between rescuers and non-rescuers. Both groups had similar capacities for empathy. So even if novel reading does enhance and develop our ability to empathize, there is no evidence to support the belief that novel readers would be more inclined toward acts of compassion.


However, Sancho Panza’s devotion is relentless. Empathy and the Novel does not stop at debunking the myth that empathy leads to altruism. Keen also challenges the notion that novel reading enhances our ability to emphasize. As a reader, and especially as a writer, I take for granted the empathic experience of engaging with a story. What else is the experience of reading if not empathy? But Keen points to the enchanted helmet and says it might just be a wash basin turned upside down. The research suggests that empathizers make better readers in the first place than nonempathic peopleempathic ability at eight to nine years old predict[s] reading achievement at ten to eleven years  Reading does not cultivate empathy, rather being empathetic is what makes reading possible.


Keen is thorough and original in her writing. She provides a historical overview of ethical perspectives on the novel from the 18th century to present, revealing mutable attitudes and borrowed assumptions of critics and the reading public. Empathy and the Novel investigates the relationship both readers and writers have with novels, drawing on research from psychology, sociology, and neuroscience.


As a bibliophile, I am not yet ready to recant my love for and belief in the power of stories. But in the place of faith and hyperbole, I have a more nuanced appreciation and curiosity for the object of my literary passion. There are limits to empathy and to language. I’d like to explore those limits, push them if I can.


Empathy and the Novel replaces the specious exaggeration that novel reading propagates altruism with a refined analysis that explains why empathy is central to literature but leaves–appropriately–unanswered the bigger questions about the novel’s role in social improvement. The thoroughness of Keen’s own research reveals the paucity of research on the bigger questions: What is the relationship between empathy and altruism? Does novel reading impact empathy and altruism in the lives of readers? And what kinds of novels (if any) influence empathy and altruism?

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