Reading, Empathy, and Solipsism
A handful of recent studies have demonstrated a connection between reading fiction and the development of empathy and “theory of mind,” that is, the ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of other people. Several of these studies have even shown that reading fiction acts upon the brain at a neurological level: reading about an experience activates the same parts of the brain as actually participating in that experience.
But the connection between fiction and empathy is not a recent discovery. In his 1970 essay “Fiction as Truth,” for example, British novelist Richard Hughes addresses the case of a man who considers it “proof of his serious-mindedness” that he never reads fiction. Hughes criticizes the man’s refusal to read fiction as “a solipsistic retreat into the fortress of his own ‘I am.’” It is a refusal to face “the fact that other people are not ‘things’ but ‘persons’”:
Not mere machines mass-produced on the genetic assembly line complete with built-in obsolescence, but persons; not things to be studies only from outside and even then in numbers large enough to form categories and classes, not things to be regarded in relation to his own Ego as mere obstacles or raw materials or tools—but what Sartre calls the “Other,” just as much persons as he is a person himself.
He concludes: “It was the vast failure to learn that lesson which built the gas-chambers. The archetypal non-reader of Fiction was Hitler.” Hughes regards empathy—the reader’s ability “to be someone else”—as the foundation of a society that values human life and human rights. In an age of “mutually-assured destruction,” it was also essential to the survival of the human race. For Hughes, the consequence of neglecting fiction is solipsism, a catastrophic failure of empathy.
Others would argue that even the reader of fiction can retreat into the fortress of solipsism if his choice or manner of reading only reflects and reinforces his own experience rather than opening him up to the experience of others. In a 2013 article for the conservative National Association of Scholars, William H. Young attributes the “literacy problem” to progressive educational approaches such as critical pedagogy and constructivism—the construction of a text’s meaning through reference to the reader’s personal experience—which he says encourage students to see texts “only through the postmodern prism of their personal identity, experience, feelings, and opinion.”
“From constructivism,” Young writes, “they know only solipsism.”
This is not a concern only for conservative critics of multiculturalism and progressive education. In a 2014 essay in Slate, “The Awful Emptiness of ‘Relatable,’” Rebecca Onion dissected her problem with “relatablity” as a criterion for understanding and appreciating literature. The word “relatable,” Onion writes, “presumes that the speaker’s experiences and tastes are common and normative.” She quotes University of Iowa English professor Adam Hooks, who writes that “‘relatable’ is a sign of a failure to engage with the work or text, a a failure to get beyond one’s own concerns to confront the unfamiliar and the uncomfortable.”
“In other words,” Onion adds, “the quest for the ‘relatable’ circumscribes the expansion of empathy that you can gain through exposure to new things.”
In an essay in the New Yorker on “The Scourge of ‘Relatability,’” published a few months after Onion’s, Rebecca Mead distinguishes between “relatability,” which expresses the expectation “that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer,” and “identification,” in which the reader “is thinking herself into the experience of the characters.” Relatability, Mead says, implies “a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.”
Identification involves active engagement with a text. It involves the effort to move out of one’s comfort zone and inhabit the experience of someone unlike oneself. Relatability is the path of least resistance. Identification turns us into someone else. Relatability assures us that we are with others who are like us.
In 2014, when I published an essay in Critical Flame about being a stay-at-home father and reading women’s domestic fiction, one man tweeted: “This guy needs a Playstation and a copy of Grand Theft Auto badly.” The implication was that I needed something to boost my masculinity, something stereotypically masculine like a violent and misogynistic video game.
This seems to be the reasoning behind Esquire’s list of “80 Books Every Man Should Read,” a list of books full of machismo and glorification of the male experience, all but one of which are by male authors. This lopsided Esquire list prompted Rebecca Solnit to respond with an essay titled “80 Books No Woman Should Read,” in which she observes that the books on the list seem to be offered as “instructions” on manliness, reinforcing a traditional concept of masculinity that treats women as objects or as disposable or as unimportant. In a follow-up essay, “Men Explain Lolita to Me,” Solnit writes:
There’s a currently popular argument that books help us feel empathy, but if they do so they do it by helping us imagine that we are people we are not. Or to go deeper within ourselves, to be more aware of what it means to be heartbroken, or ill, or six, or ninety-six, or completely lost. Not just versions of our self rendered awesome and eternally justified and always right, living in a world in which other people only exist to help reinforce our magnificence, though those kinds of books and comic books and movies exist in abundance and cater to the male imagination. Which is a reminder that literature and art can also help us fail at empathy if it sequesters us in the Boring Old Fortress of Magnificent Me.
If a man reads only books that reinforce his own masculine experience and self-image, books with male characters he finds somehow “relatable,” this is still “a solipsistic retreat into the fortress of his own ‘I am.’”