Debating Whether Lit Is Useless

Claude Monet, "The Reader" (1874)

Claude Monet, “The Reader” (1874)

I recently came across a New Yorker post that seems to challenge the very foundation of my blog. Addressing the question of whether literature should be “useful,” Lee Siegel argues no. His point of departure is a couple of recent studies—one which I have written about here—that claim to prove that great literature improves our ability to empathize.  Siegel sums up the the New School study as follows:

The subjects who had read literary fiction either reported heightened emotional intelligence or demonstrated, in the various tests administered to them, that their empathy levels had soared beyond their popular- and non-fiction-reading counterparts.

The studies think that this is a mark in literature’s favor, as do I, but Siegel disagrees. He has several critiques.

First, he points out that the ability to empathize doesn’t automatically make one a good person. He uses Iago and Othello to make his case:

There is, for example, no more empathetic character in the novel or on the stage than Iago, who is able to detect the slightest fluctuation in Othello’s emotional state. Othello, on the other hand, is a noble and magnanimous creature—if vain and bombastic as well—who is absolutely devoid of the gift of being able to apprehend another’s emotional states. If he were half as empathetic as Iago, he would be able to recognize the jealousy that is consuming his treacherous lieutenant. The entire play is an object lesson in the emotional equipment required to vanquish other people, or to protect yourself from other people’s machinations. But no one—and no study—can say for sure whether the play produces more sympathetic people, or more Iagos.

Siegel may be conflating two questions with his concluding observation. One is whether literature does in fact make one more empathetic and the second is whether being more empathetic is automatically a good thing. Following up the second line of argument, he notes that empathizing with literary characters won’t necessarily make one a better social being:

Indeed, what neither of the two studies did was to measure whether the empathetic responses led to sympathetic feeling. Empathetic identification with the ordeals suffered by Apuleius’s golden ass, Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Shakespeare’s King Lear—a play Dr. Johnson wanted to be performed with a revised, happy ending because he said its spectacle of suffering was too much to endure—Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, Alyosha, or Prince Myshkin, Emma Bovary, not to mention the protagonists of misanthropic modernists like Céline, Gide, Kafka, Mann, et al.—empathetic sharing of these characters’ emotions could well turn a person inward, away from humanity altogether.

And then Siegel shifts to an issue which I’ve tackled several times in this blog: Do we diminish literature by emphasizing its utilitarian value?

Yet even if empathy were always the benign, beneficent, socially productive trait it is celebrated as, the argument that producing empathy is literature’s cardinal virtue is a narrowing of literary art, not an exciting new expansion of it.

By the way, I agree that we shouldn’t rely on narrow utilitarian defenses of literature’s presence in schools. But Siegel’s line of reasoning gets a bit tangled at this point. Initially he seems to be arguing, as Stanley Fish has argued (to my displeasure), that literature is powerful precisely because it has no utilitarian value:

Fiction’s lack of practical usefulness is what gives it its special freedom. When Auden wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen,” he wasn’t complaining; he was exulting. Fiction might make people more empathetic—though I’m willing to bet that the people who respond most intensely to fiction possess a higher degree of empathy to begin with. But what it does best is to do nothing particular or specialized or easily formulable at all.

Note Siegel’s subtle shift in the course of the paragraph. Although he begins by talking of “fiction’s lack of practical usefulness” and how “poetry makes nothing happen,” by the last sentence he is qualifying these bold assertions. In the last sentence he say that literature does “nothing particular,” or at least nothing “specialized,” or at least nothing “easily formulable.” That’s not the same as Auden’s nothing. After all, it leaves open the possibility that literature does make something happen–just that this something is not one special thing, that this something can’t be reduced to an easy formula.

I’ll certainly grant him that. Indeed, the purpose of this blog to demonstrate that literature does a wide range of things. Every day I find an example of literature helping me or someone else to do something, but there isn’t a formula here. I can’t, to paraphrase Prufock, roll all my examples up into a ball, rolling them toward some overarching theory about literature’s impact.

In the end, Siegel makes a 180 degree turn and admits that literature is so “multifarious” that it can have a wide range of possible effects:

Fiction’s multifarious nature is why so many people have attributed so many effects to imaginative literature, some of them contradictory: catharsis (Aristotle); dangerous corruption of the spirit (Plato); feverish loosening of morals (Rousseau); redemptive escape from personality (Eliot); empowering creation beyond the boundaries of morality (Joyce). Fiction ruined Don Quixote, young Werther, and Emma Bovary, but it saved Cervantes, Flaubert, and Goethe.

I guess I can breathe a sigh of relief and go back to asserting that great literature can change your life. I welcome Siegel’s many examples but must point out that he has not proved what he says in his conclusion. There he seems seems to claim that, after experiencing fiction’s “countless and unquantifiable” qualities, we return to a daily grind of one-dimensional reality.

That [reading great literature] is freedom, and that is joy—and then it is back to the quotidian challenge, to the daily grind, and to the necessity of attaching a specific meaning to what people are thinking and feeling, and to the urgency of trying, for the sake of love or money, to profit from it.

Literature, in this vision, seems to be no more than a vacation, a temporary sojourn before we return to what we were doing before. What Siegel fails to consider is that the reader who returns is not the same reader who left earlier. As a result of some interaction with a work of literature, this reader may well have“changed, changed utterly,” to quote Yeats, meaning that future interchanges with the world will be different as well.

Maybe not different in a way that can be formulated. But different nonetheless.


Upon further reflection: By noting Siegel’s inconsistencies, I haven’t done entire justice to his piece. He is doing a complicated dance between arguing that we appreciate literature because it is important to the world and arguing that we love literature because it allows us to escape from the world. It’s a version of the old light vs. sweetness debate that caused Swift (and I believe Horace before him) to think of the artist as a bee: the bee makes wax for candles (useful for illumination) and honey for enjoyment.

Many have engaged in this dance. At the beginning of one of the most momentous books in the American canon, Twain writes, “PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” But even Auden couldn’t convincingly argue that Huckleberry Finn has made nothing happen. Nor do I think he would want to.

The issue, I think, is that literature’s purpose needs to be weighed against society’s values. If we live in a Gradgrindian society where things have value only to the extent that they contribute to a balance sheet, then saying that “literature makes nothing happen” is a way of keeping it from getting sucked into capitalism’s maw. The danger of such statements, however, is that they seem to relegate literature to the realm of irrelevant fluff.

And so, in defense of Siegel, even as he inveighs against social scientists arguing for the utility of literature, he makes a pretty compelling case for why it is vital that we read literature. Here are two other excerpts from his piece that are worth singling out:

The results [of the studies] were heartening to every person who has ever found herself, throughout her freshman year of college, passionately quoting to anyone within earshot Kafka’s remark that great literature is “an axe to break the frozen sea inside us.”

And (with an image borrowed from Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality”):

Fiction unfolds through your imagination in interconnected layers of meaning that lift the heavy weight of unyielding facts from your shoulders. It speaks its own private language of endless nuance and inflection. A tale is a reassuringly mortalized, if you will, piece of the oceanic infinity out of which we came, and back into which we will go.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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