Empathy -- our ability to feel for others -- is what allows us to care for each other, to form communities and friendships, to imagine each other's feelings, to commiserate over each other's pain and share in each other's joy. This ability is what makes literature and drama work.
Empathy is what provides much of the tension and engagement that one finds in good literature -- and according to a new study publicized in the New York Times, reading literary fiction increases empathy. That study has proven controversial. However, there are a wealth of less-publicized studies that do show a link between fiction reading and empathy.
We have empathy primarily for people that we know. Familiarity can breed contempt, but it also necessitates comprehension. People we include in our in-groups, those we consider part of an "us," are seen as deserving of empathy, often because we know them as individuals and understand their particular circumstances. As globalization continues apace and more different kinds of people encounter one another -- in universities, in airports, in urban centers, or online -- our circles of empathy are expanding. This is particularly true of the younger generation, especially in the U.S., where young people are more diverse in themselves but are also more likely to attend college, study abroad, travel and to identify as global citizens than were our parents. We are more likely to know people of different races, religions and nationalities, people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, people of different sexual orientations, et cetera. And demonstrably, this increases the circle of people who get empathy. It makes us resistant to seeing a certain group of people as Others when we know individuals from that group as individuals. Even Dick Cheney came out in support of same-sex marriage, mostly because one of his daughters is a lesbian. In describing how he came to change his mind and support same-sex marriage, President Obama noted the influence of his daughters, who have friends with gay or lesbian parents and how their experience has normalized -- de-Othered -- homosexuality and same-sex partnerships for him.
Schiappa et al's parasocial contact hypothesis, referenced in the study by Kidd and Castano that inspired the New York Times article, states that "if people process mass-mediated parasocial interaction in a manner similar to interpersonal interaction, then the socially-beneficial functions of intergroup contact may result from parasocial contact." In other words, exposure through media to people from other "groups" may have the same effect as direct personal exposure, which has been shown to improve empathy for those outside of one's own group under certain conditions. Literature, then, is like a cheat sheet in learning empathy for strangers and those foreign to us. Literature tells us the inner thoughts and feelings of others, shows us their interactions, drawing us into their experience and making us care about them almost as deeply as we care about ourselves and our loved ones. It also shows us other relationships and social patterns from a semi-external view, so that we can see the way people function in relation to each other in the world of the story, and also how those relationships have an impact on the thoughts and feelings of other characters. We get a sort of cross-section of how human relationships interweave, which can teach us about the way that the relationships in which we are daily enmeshed may function outside of our own participation and the feelings and reactions they arouse in us.
Reading Frankenstein, one feels for the Creature because we hear him. We see how Victor and the world treat him, and we know how he feels about it, how his pain is like ours. In reality, of course, if we saw him in the street, many of us would react by gasping, hiding our faces, perhaps shouting at him. We are often better readers than we are actors in the world -- because literature provides us with the key to the inner rooms of others, and when we view others' feelings as we view our own, we must empathize with them, and we don't want to hurt them, because it would be as hurting ourselves. Empathy with the Creature, who is not of us, who wishes to be part of our society and yet seems not to fit, who seems not human, not in our in-group -- that is a much harder task, and it is here that we must endeavor to bridge the gap between ourselves as readers and ourselves as people, and bring the powerful empathy that literature evokes for fictional characters to bear in the real world, on real people. Thus can we extend human rights, for when we think of ourselves as all human, as all people with equally real and valuable thoughts and feelings, how can we deny anyone basic rights? How can we go to war, kill indiscriminately, torture, murder or rape when we center empathy in our lives?
Literature brings us into another world, and allows us to see through the eyes of another, to experience realities we can't in real life. Literature doesn't yet include the full range of experience: It is skewed toward the white, straight, cisgendered male experience, but the novel has a long history of allowing female expression, and the world of literature is, slowly, opening up to women writers, writers of color, LGBT writers and everyone else, and those experiences, those worlds, are thus becoming more and more accessible to all of us, letting us see the realities that others live, giving us empathy for those we might otherwise see as utterly Other and thus ignore or even hurt ourselves. This doesn't mean that we live these people's lives -- we put the book down and move in the world as whoever we are, and those of us with various privileges will never really know what it is to lose that privilege -- but reading about a character's experiences can draw our attention and elicit our empathy, and move us to behave better in the real world.