Lee Siegel is the author of four books: Falling Upwards: Essays in the Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; Against the Machine: How the Web is Reshaping Culture and Commerce -- and Why it Matters; and Are You Serious: How to Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly (Harper). Siegel has published over 500 essays, articles and reviews, which have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, New York, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among many other publications. A popular social and cultural critic, Siegel's keynote speeches resonate with audiences of all backgrounds, from colleges and community events to corporate conferences.
Siegel's newest book, Are You Serious: How to Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly, defines and celebrates the quality of seriousness while examining the contemporary forces ranged against it. We used to live in a world run by serious people: many of our political and religious leaders, writers and artists, journalists and academics, lawyers and business executives were men and women who were plainly serious about their professional roles. Today it seems as if most of these figures have all but disappeared, leaving our country and our culture in the hands of amateurs, buffoons, and professional clowns.Yet according to Siegel, seriousness has been elusive in every age, and every age has its own particular obstacles to living seriously.
In his book and in his keynote speeches, Siegel illuminates the contemporary distractions of profit, popularity and instant pleasure that confront us as we search for ways to be serious in culture, politics, and in everyday life. He offers a thoughtful and enlightening exploration of seriousness in all its incarnations, from the heights of intellectual endeavor to the depths of political conflict to romance and business. Siegel lays bare the forces in modern life that create the silliness all around us, and he describes how seriousness may be attained through the qualities of attention, purpose, and continuity, in satisfying lives forged in bonds of love and work.
Siegel has been television critic for the New Republic, where he also served as a senior editor; book critic for The Nation; art critic for Slate; staff writer at Harper's, Talk magazine, and The Los Angeles Times Book Review; weekly columnist for TheNew York Observer; senior columnist for The Daily Beast, and associate editor of ARTnews.
In 2002, Siegel was awarded a National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism. He has appeared as a guest on The Daily Show and as a commentator on MSNBC, CNBC, and BBC television, as well as on NPR and numerous national and international radio stations. He received his B.A., M.A., and a masters of philosophy at Columbia University, and lives in Montlclair, New Jersey with his wife and two children.
Praise for Lee Siegel's writing:
"One of the country's most eloquent and acid-tongued cultural critics."
-- The New York Times Magazine
"A fluent and culturally voracious critic, Siegel writes a mean and memorable sentence."
-- Financial Times
"A wizard of macho outrage."
-- The Economist
"The scourge of literary cant."
-- Ross Douthat, New York Times Book Review
Two recent studies have concluded that serious literary fiction makes people more empathetic, and humanists everywhere are clinking glasses in celebration. But I wonder whether this is a victory for humanism’s impalpable enrichments and enchantments, or for the quantifying power of social science.
The two studies, one by a pair of social psychologists at the New School, and another conducted by researchers in the Netherlands, divided participants into several groups. The methodology was roughly the same in both studies. In the New School experiment, one group read selected examples of literary fiction (passages by Louise Erdrich, Don DeLillo, and others); another read commercial fiction, and another was given serious non-fiction or nothing at all. The subjects were asked either to describe their emotional states, or instructed, among other tests, to look at photographs of people’s eyes and try to derive from these pictures what the people were feeling when the photographs were taken.
The results 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.” 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’ conclusions are also particularly gratifying in light of the new Common Core Standards, hastily being adopted by school districts throughout the country, which emphasize non-fiction, even stressing the reading of train and bus schedules over imaginative literature. Here at last, it seemed, was a proper debunking of that skewed approach to teaching the art of reading.
There is another way to look at the studies’ conclusions, however. Instead of proclaiming the superiority of fiction to the practical skills allegedly conferred by reading non-fiction, the studies implied that practical effects are an indispensable standard by which to judge the virtues of fiction. Reading fiction is good, according to the studies, because it makes you a more effective social agent. Which is pretty much what being able to read a train schedule does for you, too.
Americans have always felt uncomfortable about any cultural activity that does not lead to concrete results. “He that wastes idly a groat’s worth of his time per day, one day with another, wastes the privilege of using one hundred pounds each day”: though Benjamin Franklin was fairly indifferent to money himself, the sentiment he expressed in that bit of advice became a hallmark of the national character. Idleness is still anathema in American life. (Kim Kardashian, who has restlessly turned her idle time into a profitable industry, is a Puritan at heart.) And the active daydream of writing and reading fiction is idleness in its purest state, neither promising nor leading to any practical or concrete result. From the didactic McGuffey Readers that lasted from the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century to William Bennett’s “Book of Virtues” in our own time (a liberal response, “A Call to Character” by Colin Greer and Herbert Kohl, was published a few years later), the American impulse to make room for literature by harnessing it to a socially useful purpose has taken many forms. You might even say that the two archetypal fictional American characters, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, invented by the country’s most scathing satirist, are essentially arguments for the superiority of idleness over any morally, socially or financially useful American activity.
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.
Literature may well have taught me about the complex nature of empathy. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
It’s safe to say that, like life itself, fiction’s properties are countless and unquantifiable. If art is made ex nihilo—out of nothing—then reading is done in nihilo, or into nothing. 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. That 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.
Lee Siegel is the author of two collections of criticism, “Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination,” and “Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television.”
Illustration by Matthew Hollister.