Perhaps it is appropriate, in our moment of ardent quantifying—page views, neurobiological aperçus, the mining of personal data, the mysteries of monetization and algorithms—that fiction, too, should find its justification by providing a measurably useful social quality such as empathy. Yet while the McGuffey Readers and their descendants used literature to try to inculcate young people with religious and civic morality, the claim that literary fiction strengthens empathy is a whole different kettle of fish.
Though empathy has become something like the celebrity trait of emotional intelligence, it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the sensitivity and gentleness popularly attributed to it. Some of the most empathetic people you will ever meet are businesspeople and lawyers. They can grasp another person’s feelings in an instant, act on them, and clinch a deal or win a trial. The result may well leave the person on the other side feeling anguished or defeated. Conversely, we have all known bookish, introverted people who are not good at puzzling out other people, or, if they are, lack the ability to act on what they have grasped about the other person.
To enter a wholly different realm, empathy characterizes certain sadists. Discerning the most refined degrees of discomfort and pain in another person is the fulcrum of the sadist’s pleasure. The empathetic gift can lead to generosity, charity, and self-sacrifice. It can also enable someone to manipulate another person with great subtlety and finesse.
Lee Siegel kicks the remaining shit out of the trendy idea that fiction-reading correlates neatly with conventional standards of moral character: