Why do Americans read contemporary fiction?
Readers themselves might not put it in these terms, but clearly they are looking for characters that they can relate to, that they can identify with. Characters who offer them models for how to live their lives or how not to live their lives. And they are looking to have an experience of empathy or compassion. And all of this serves a therapeutic function.
What do you mean by “therapeutic function”?
Most therapists claim they help people manage or alleviate their psychological dysfunctions, but I also would argue that therapy gives people a language that allows them to understand their inner life and their problems. It gives them a way to make their problems feel real and concrete and gives them a vocabulary that allows them to communicate their internal issues with other people. Especially in the last 50 to 60 years, novels focus very much on psychological interior, the inner life of their characters, and so novels do a similar kind of work for readers.
In America we have this intense and elaborate celebration of the personal sphere. And related to this idea is Americans as this bunch of navel-gazers, which makes them more likely to treat literature as a kind of therapy. I argue that this therapeutic function doesn’t necessarily have to entail a self-centeredness or rejection of social responsibility.
A couple things have happened. One is that the process by which books get published, edited, and disseminated has become more market driven especially in the past 30 or 40 years. With the new publishing conglomerates and the rise of chain bookstores, there are more elaborate methods for predicting a book’s profitability. Business managers are increasingly influencing editorial decisions. The books that get published are published because someone thinks that they will answer the needs of readers. [Another factor is that] there is this widespread need for therapy in the American population. Whether consciously or not, the publishing industry is going to try to answer that need.
I think editors all along wanted to produce books that people would get something out of, but I would argue that an earlier generation of editors and critics were somewhat more invested in the idea of producing literature that they simply thought was good, whether or not masses of middle-class audiences could appreciate it. And now editors are more focused on producing books that readers will identify with, connect with, and empathize with.
Are authors writing more therapy into their stories or are readers inserting the therapy function into the novels they are reading?
Both are happening. I don’t know that either would say that’s explicitly what they’re doing, but I think the urge to offer or seek therapy is so hardwired into the DNA consciousness right now that authors and readers are both doing that. … Readers are taking interpretative liberties with books and turning them into self-help books, but I also would argue that some authors are trying to respond to the needs that they perceive among American readers.
In the end, is it good or bad that so many Americans read as a form of therapy?
In the book, I try to resist coming to some definitive verdict on whether it is a good or bad thing. My main focus is to rescue this way of reading from the dismissive responses of many intellectuals and scholars. And to suggest that it depends on the context and situation. Reading therapeutically can perform a lot of positive functions for some readers in some moments, but in other situations it can reinforce the self-involvement that some observers find troubling when they look at America. It’s a mixed bag.
Interview has been condensed.