Empathy and the Novel by Suzanne Keen (Reviewed)

Suzanne Keen’s Empathy and the Novel (2007, Oxford University Press, 242 pp.) can be read as an introduction to empathy studies, fiction (novel studies), and reading in the enlarged sense of engaging with the Humanities. Keen’s approach to these intersecting discourses is nuanced, subtle, and not easily summarized. She provides a great springboard for further conversations, elaborations, and social psychology experiments.

The usual definitions of empathy are reviewed, especially: a vicarious, spontaneous sharing of affect (2007: 4). I would add: talking a walk in the other person’s shoes; transiently, temporarily, and selectively identifying with the other person; appreciating who the other person is being as a possibility; feeling and experiencing vicariously what the other person feels and experiences; being fully present with the other person in such a way as to acknowledge and respond to the other’s humanity. Keen’s book is fully buzzword compliant, including accounts of theory of mind, mirror neurons, and storytelling.

A significant part of the interest in relating empathy and the reading of fiction, especially novels as in Keen’s book, is to make the world a better place. Read some quality fiction; expand one’s empathy; and take action to improve the world. Wouldn’t it be nice? 

Keen notes: an ideal type case is that of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which, in its time, was a run-away best seller, opening the eyes of contemporaries to the injustices and inhumanity of slavery, furthering the cause of abolition. Even if such a book as Stowe’s did not directly create a social movement, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, it is notable as representing a parallel and behind the scenes shift in the prevailing values of the community. (Sinclair’s The Jungle or Dickens’ Oliver Twist might be added to the list of influential works (2007: 118)). And yet the libraries are overflowing with novels that did not make a difference and are read by few.

Due to the importance of the empathy-altruism hypothesis developed by C. Daniel Batson, Suzanne Keen begins her book on Empathy and the Novel with Batson’s hypothesis and its relation to the practice of reading fiction.

At the risk of oversimplification, I gloss the subtleties and what the empathy-altruism hypothesis gets right: empathy creates a clearing for the prosocial, helping behaviors of altruistic behavior such as one finds in Good Samaritan scenarios. When read judiciously, this hypothesis neither reduces altruism to empathy, nor vice versa. Experimental subjects who are empathically “primed” find that their “empathy” understood as prosocial engagement spontaneously manifests itself in the direction of altruism when challenged to do so. Nevertheless, Batson’s work is a masterpiece of studied ambiguity when it comes to deciding where the boundary lies between empathy and altruism.

Keen’s approach privileges the novel, in which the fictional world brings forth a “safe space,” in which empathy can be applied without requiring that anyone take action: “…[F]ictional worlds provide a safe zone for readers’ feeling empathy without a resultant demand on real world action” (2007: 4). That is quite appropriate from the perspective of a professor of English literature. However, one might just as well reverse the equation. Empathy creates a clearing for acceptance and toleration within which the imagination performs its work of capturing experience as a narrative in which the empathic exchange of emotional and imaginative psychic contents occurs.

My position in the matter is: Empathy opens us to (“tells us”) what the other person is experiencing; our good upbringing, morals, ethics, and professional practices tell us what to do about it. This makes it sound like empathy is a mode of observation or perception, and it is indeed that. However, insofar as empathy is something that requires two people in interaction, the empathizer is required to perform an empathic response in order to complete the loop and validate the empathic interaction. 

One key point of debate is whether reading novels expands a person’s empathy. Though Keen is inclined to favor this hypothesis, she marshals significant evidence on both sides of the debate and concludes that the jury is still out. 

The literary career of empathy (Keen’s incisive phrase) extends from 18th century warnings by the clergy and other learned men that novel reading ranks among the incentives to the seduction of female readers (Keen, 2007: 37) all the way to the enlightenment philosophers such as David Hume and, finally, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s guidance to extend the sympathetic imagination to feel with others. “Sympathetic” because the word “empathy” had not yet been coined in the English language (which would happen in 1909 as E. B. Titchener’s translation of the German “Einfühlung”). Fast forward to James Joyce, Sam Beckett, and Berthold Brecht, who become anti-empaths, privileging defamiliarization and estrangement in narrative. 

The moral peril of vicarious emotions to the innocence of girls becomes the emotional contagion that Brecht sees as subverting the consciousness raising of the workers and potential for revolutionary action of the working class by means of his Epic Theatre. None of this is full blown adult empathy, but it is on a spectrum of empathic relatedness that is wide and complex. 

Arguably, the listening and receptivity of the community were ready to respond to the message of these books due to seismic shifts in social and productive relations; and the book provided concise language and a set of powerful images to make the point at hand. Though correlation is rarely causation, sometimes correlation is good enough.

No substitute is available for the “magic bullet” of identifying a specific replicateable cause, and such discoveries are rare. Though many people confuse cause and effect (nor am I saying that happens to Keen!), from the point of view of an alliance between empathy, fiction, and social action, it is almost as enlightening and effective to have the literary fiction represent the “signs and portends” of social dynamics that can then become the target of appropriate political action, fund raising, consciousness raising, and social influence. As Keen puts it, “…[reading literary fiction becomes] a sign of one’s empathy and commitment to human principles” (2007: 167). Reading literary fiction – presumably along with political editorials – would be a source and a method of consciousness raising. Still most readers do not look to reading literature as sources for social action in the real world – or at least the evidence-based studies that Keen sites do not show such a result. (2007: 118).

All the casual, easy generalization such as “altruism results in expanded empathy,” “empathy results in expanded altruism,” “reading quality fiction (novels) enhances empathy,” “empathy enhances appreciation of the novel” have significant qualifications, conditions, and counter-examples. Never was it truer, the devil is in the details; and Keen’s work contains a wealth of engaging examples and background on empathy studies. Incidentally, Keen ends her book with some twenty-seven proposals about narrative empathy (2007: 169 – 171).

In discussing the enhanced empathy of authors, who report that their characters come to life in their imaginations, Keen acknowledges the moral ambiguities of the possibilities of empathy for both good and evil. For example, Keen reports that William Pierce (pseudonym: Andrew MacDonald), founder of a white supremacist organization, published The Turner Diaries (1978), containing hateful depictions of blacks, Jews, and gay people. The novel was apparently written with some literary skill. Timothy McVeigh, the bomber of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City (1995), studied this book, and, based on the account in the novel, “emulated its protagonist by building a fertilizer bomb to explode a government building […] made and deployed in a small truck” (Keen 2007: 127). 

True, it is highly improbable that the novel by Pierce (MacDonald) caused an upstanding citizen to become a mad bomber. McVeigh was already entangled with murderous levels of prejudice and deviance, and was therefore attracted to the novel. Do not confuse cause and effect; yet the evidence is that this white supremacist novel – and the bomb making parts of it – inspired McVeigh and made him a more dangerous deviant.

Another celebrated example of a novel having alleged causative effects, not mentioned by Keen, in the real world is Goethe’s The Sufferings of Young Werther, in which the broken-hearted hero commits suicide. There really was an epidemic of copycat suicides across Europe in which romantically devastated individuals would jump off of bridges with a copy on the novel in their respective pockets as a kind of suicide note. More good empathy gone bad? Can’t get no satisfaction – or empathy? More likely, individuals who were already suicidal found an expression of their suffering in literary form thanks to the dramatic finesse of Goethe.

I offer a bold statement of that which is hidden in plain view. The hidden variable is the practice of empathy itself. If I read a novel that enrolls me in the practicing prosocial empathic responsiveness to my neighbors, then empathy is expanded. If I read a novel that enrolls me in the practice of white supremacy, then the latter is expanded.

One could argue, though I will dispute the formidable ambiguities, that even white supremacists can be empathic towards other white supremacists. That is the critique of empathy that asserts empathy is too parochial, limited only to the in group, and, as such, a problematic “virtue,” if one at all. The answer is direct. In so far as the white supremacists [and so on] require one conform to a certain prejudiced, humanly devaluing ideology to qualify as the recipient of the practice of empathy, the empathy misfires and fails. 

Thus, the debate is joined. The celebrated Self Psychologist and empathy innovator Heinz Kohut, MD, gives the example of the Nazis who equipped their dive bombers with sirens, the better to impart empathic distress in their victims, thus demonstrating their (the Nazis’) subtle “empathic” appreciation of their victims’ feelings. I am tempted to say, “The devil may quote scripture,” and Nazis may try to apply some subset of a description of “empathy.”

Note that Kohut speaks of “fiendish empathy” and the use of empathy for a “hostile purpose” while emphasizing his value neutral definition of empathy as “vicarious introspection” (1981: 529, 580). Nevertheless, the point is well taken that empathy is a powerful phenomenon in all its dimensions and requires careful handling. [For further details see: “On Empathy,” The Search for the Self: Volume 4: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut 1978-1981, London: Karnac Books, 2011: 525 – 535].

The Nazi applies a kind of entry level emotional contagion or affective transmission of feelings, but the process breaks down at the point of empathic responsiveness. Empathic responsiveness requires a core of acknowledgement and recognition of the other person’s humanity.

But it is plainly evident that the would-be “empathy” of the Nazis (or the white supremacists) misfires and fails in a contradiction. It is a flat-out contradiction to relate authentically to another human being while dehumanizing him or her. Empathy doesn’t work that way. Empathic responsiveness simply does not admit of bombing people or disqualifying them as “less than” or other than human when they plainly are human. 

One of the strongest points of Keen’s book is the final chapter on “Contesting Empathy,” in which she cites a long series of objections, qualifications, and doubts about empathy. Failed empathy, false empathy, fake empathy, breakdowns of empathy, and the social construction of the emotions are engaged and deconstructed. Empathy has to run a gauntlet of things that can go wrong with it, though I suggest it emerges out of the backend bruised but still in one piece.

This point is not well-understood in the empathy research literature where break downs of empathy are mischaracterized as features of empathy itself. To blame empathy for its misuse, breakdowns, and misapplications is rather like using the smoke alarm to decide when Thanksgiving turkey is done. 

Keen is concerned that the empathy-altruism hypothesis with which she launches her project is left hanging by a thread. If the work of Kohut is to be credited (who, by the way, is not mentioned by Keen), the hypothesis is not likely ever to be validated. Yet if empathy is a practice, not a mere psychological mechanism, then by practicing it, we get better at it in using it to reinforce and expand our shared humanity. Empathy becomes a powerful force in creating a clearing to call forth “the better angels of our nature.” The empathy-altruism hypothesis as an aspirational project, not a social psychology given. 

Thus, the really tough question is how does “empathy” as a psychological mechanism relate to “empathy” as a interpersonal process and “empathy” as a practice in relating to people. One starts out talking about empathy as a psychological mechanism, subsumed by a biological mirroring system (even if mirror neurons remain debatable) and invoking identification, projection, and introjection. 

Almost immediately one has to give an example of two people having a conversation in which one is feeling and experiencing something that the person may or may not “get” or “understand.” Then one finds oneself immediately discussing the practical considerations of why, in the course of the personal interaction, the empathy succeeded or broke down in a misunderstanding, and how to improve one’s practice of empathy based on experience.

It makes a profound difference from which definition of empathy one begins, though ultimately one has a sense of traversing all the distinctions and simply coming back to enhanced relatedness and understanding of the other person. 

One goes in a circle. Readers are attracted to the literary fiction that speaks to their hopes, possibilities, and fears, which, in turn, expands and reinforces their hopes, possibilities, and fears. Then, either by accident or diligent search, readers encounter new forms of writing that change their experiences and perceptions. The writing causes the readers to see existing social structures and ways of relating to other people in new ways. The hermeneutic circle of interpretation? The engaging thing about bringing the hermeneutic circle to empathy is that it provides a series of steps, phases, within which logically to organize the process. Even if ultimately such a hermeneutic circle of empathy falls short of a formal algorithm, one gets a coherent guide against which to succeed or fail and engage in a process of continuous improvement based on experience. 

What if a rigorous and critical empathy gave us the data needed to grasp the way to the humanity enhancing actions that need to be taken? The application of empathy would become an imperative guiding our reading and relatedness along with the moral imperatives so important to Keen and Batson. Empathy has not usually functioned as a criteria of literary significance or greatness – until now. 


Since Keen published her book in 2007, several peer-reviewed have appeared that support the hypothesis that reading literary fiction expands empathy. These are useful, but do not decisively determine the outcome of the debate; and, obviously, these researchers did not include Pierce (MacAndrews) on their list. A lot of work gets done here by the adjective “literary.” For example: 

Bal, P. M , Veltkamp, M. (2013). How Does Fiction Reading Influence Empathy? An Experimental Investigation on the Role of Emotional Transportation. PLoS ONE 8(1): e55341, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0055341;

David Comer Kidd, Emanuele Castano. (2013). Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, Science 18 October 2013, Vol. 342, Issue 6156, pp. 377–380, DOI: 10.1126/science.1239918; 

Kelly Servick. (2013). Want to Read Minds? Read Good Bookshttps://www.science.org/content/article/want-read-minds-read-good-books [The page # is not available on the web version; but they are short articles.]

The reader may usefully review my blog post on these publications and “reading literary fiction expands empathy”: https://bit.ly/311A2G8

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Categories: Empathy, Empathy and Literature, empathy trends

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