This Just InPrint
By William Deresiewicz
August 19, 2012
A recent article in The New York Times proclaimed the gladsome tidings. “New support for the value of fiction,” it announced, “is arriving from an unexpected quarter: neuroscience.” Our brains light up like Christmas trees, it turns out, when we’re exposed to narrative language. Not only that, but reading fiction increases our ability to empathize with others. Writers, grateful for anything that might relieve their Dostoyevskian sense of wounded insignificance, rejoiced at the support; I saw the article whizzing past me several times on Facebook.
Me, I thought, Here we go again. Reading fiction increases our ability to empathize with others? Did we really need science to tell us that? Apparently, we need science to tell us everything. I remember a big story in Time magazine about 20 years ago: scientists show that urban life is stressful. Really, scientists show? Writers showed us that 150 years ago and more. Balzac, Dickens, Gaskell, Zola. But that’s not good enough, at least for Time.
In The Prisoner of Sex, Norman Mailer wrote that he was “sufficiently intimate with magazine readers to know the age of technology had left them with an inability to respect writing which lacked the authority of statistics.” I don’t know about readers, but I do know about editors, and most of them don’t like it when you rest your argument on literary sources. They want numbers, studies, sociology. Aristotle, Montaigne, and Emerson are not valid authorities on the topic, say, of friendship, but a study of 50 college students is enough to convince an editor of anything.
Oh, those studies. They always have a lot of data, but they so often miss the point. Their focus is too narrow, or they ignore the important factors, or they fail to grasp the underlying questions. They’re either jaw-droppingly obvious or head-clutchingly misguided. Science is bad enough, where it doesn’t belong, but the social sciences are even worse, precisely because they pretend to scientific rigor. As Alan Bloom pointed out, when the social sciences committed themselves to the principle of measurement, they gave up the ability to talk about anything that can’t be measured.
The problem, all around, is scientism: the belief that science is the only valid form of knowledge. To accept as much is to deny the authority of one’s own experience. Never mind Dickens; everyone who lives in a city understands that urban life is stressful. And it is nothing other than experience upon which art stakes its claim: the experience of the individual creator, and her ability to give it a form that resonates with our experience. Art is a rebuke to the cult of expertise. It is allied with citizenship, that other domain of the passionate amateur. In both, we stand on our right to speak from the self.
That’s why the Times article was so galling. It’s not enough for science (or “science”) to tell us things that art figured out a long time ago. Now it presumes to validate art itself in scientific terms—which is to say, to invalidate it, by implicitly denying its status as an independent way of knowing. But we don’t need neuroscience to tell us that reading fiction is valuable. We all know it, because we all feel it.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.