There is a common belief in society that reading literature makes us better people. Empathy – the ability to enter into another’s point-of-view – often plays a significant role in this conviction, offering, in the words of Suzanne Keen, an almost magical guarantee of literature’s value in society and education (Empathy and the Novel 2007). But is empathy always a good thing? There is a flipside of empathy that complicates the supposed ethical effects of literature. At the same time as we feel ourselves into certain characters – as we are involved in imagining certain characters as fully “human” – we also feel ourselves out of others, responding to them with antipathy and/or indifference that may block our empathy. In other words, if literature creates an understanding of the other, it simultaneously creates new others towards whom less favourable feelings may be directed, thus implicating readers in processes of empathy and othering. As much as this readerly dilemma complicates the ethical effects of literature, it also creates new opportunities for the teaching of literature. My argument is that if readers observe their own participation in this dilemma, they may catch sight of an aspect of themselves – a blind spot – that may increase their awareness of their own role and responsibility in acts of othering not only within literature but also beyond.
Anna Lindhé, Independent Scholar, Sweden