Fiction and morality

October 22, 2019

Part 4 in a series on fiction. See this post for an introduction to the podcast I’m discussing and an overview.

Wiblin says:

I think people should be cautious about what fiction they read, because you have given access to this core part of your brain to an author who is only constrained by their own moral fibre.

I’m of two minds about this claim. On the one hand, I do think that what you absorb mentally has an effect, otherwise reading itself would be fairly pointless. And this effect can be pernicious, particularly if it’s the same thing all the time. Though the evidence is mixed, I think it’s fair to worry about daily exposure to high dosages of social media, for example.

On the other hand, even prolific readers are unlikely to only read a single author for hours each day, for years on end — the way they might with a single social media site, however often its algorithm changes. Particularly if one engages in a wide reading of the classics, one would be exposed for reasonably short durations to quite a range of thinkers, and my view is that this can only be a good thing.

Wiblin’s claim also sounds a lot like the same moral panics that have plagued society for centuries. They are well-documented from at least the 18th Century, and were levelled in particular at Richardson, Rousseau, and Goethe. In fact, one name for the concept of copycat suicide is the Werther effect, named after Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Goethe eventually came to feel quite guilty about this possibility. Might his writing really have increased suicides?

There is some evidence that fictional portrayals of suicides do increase suicides, though the effect was found with a film portrayal, which might plausibly have a stronger effect than novels. Moreover, a meta-analysis showed that the effect from fiction is outweighed by cases of celebrity suicides (14.3 times more likely to show an effect) and by reporting of real suicides (4.03 times more likely to find an effect).

If there is a problem with “copycats,” in other words, it seems to be one of reporting and exposure to the idea, and not with fiction per se. And even in the 18th Century, the media coverage of the suicides was extreme. There is sparse evidence that many Werther-related suicides even happened, but a ton of media coverage suggesting they had, which would make it difficult to disentangle the effect of the fiction from the effect of the reporting.

I should say, though, that I do think literature does get access to a “core part of your brain.” If it weren’t capable of changing your mind, it would probably not enable the increase in empathy that Wiblin also argues for later. And it might not be worth reading.

So I do think that literature can have a profound effect on your thinking — but then again, so can reading science and philosophy. One should be careful about immersing oneself exclusively in the worldview of a single literary misanthrope — but then again, that surely applies to misanthropic scientists or philosophers as well. I don’t think there’s much of a case for a generalised concern about the influence of fiction over nonfiction, and the few studies done in this area seem to indicate that nonfiction (if you include the news) might be worse than literature.

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I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.