Keen, Suzanne

Empathy and the Novel

Keen, Suzanne - Empathy and the Novel, ebook


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Empathy and the Novel presents a comprehensive account of the relationships among novel reading, empathy, and altruism, exploring the implications for literary studies of the widely promulgated “empathy-altruism” hypothesis.1 Social and developmental psychologists, philosophers of virtue ethics, feminist advocates of an ethic of caring, and many defenders of the humanities believe that empathic emotion motivates altruistic action, resulting in less aggression, less fi ckle helping, less blaming of victims for their misfortunes, increased cooperation in confl ict situations, and improved actions on behalf of needy individuals and members of stigmatized groups.2 The celebration of novel reading as a stimulus to the role-taking imagination and emotional responsiveness of readers-in countless reading group guides and books on the virtues of reading, in character education curricula, and in public defenses of humanities funding-augments the empathy- altruism hypothesis, substituting experiences of narrative empathy for shared feelings with real others. Read Henry James and live well (Love's Knowledge 148); become a better world citizen through canonical novels, philosopher Martha Nussbaum advocates (Cultivating Humanity 90). Discover compassion through “The Lion and the Mouse” or “The Legend of the Dipper” writes William J. Bennett (Children's Book of Virtues 6-7). Shed your prejudices through novel reading, suggests novelist Sue Monk Kidd (“Common Heart” 9). Azar Nafi si affi rms, “empathy is at the heart of the novel,” and warns, if you don't read, you won't be able to empathize (Reading Lolita 111). Is the attractive and consoling case for fi ction implied by these representative views defensible? Surveying the existing research on the consequences of reading, I fi nd the case for altruism stemming from novel reading inconclusive at best and nearly always exaggerated in favor of the benefi cial effects of novel reading.

Acknowledgements Preface 1. Contemporary Perspectives on Empathy 2. The Literary Career of Empathy 3. Readers' Empathy 4. Empathy in the Marketplace 5. Authors' Empathy 6. Contesting Empathy Appendix: A Collection of Hypotheses about Narrative Empathy Work Cited Index

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Keywords: Empathy

Oxford University Press
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275 pages

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