Oprah, Amazon, and The Rise of Therapeutic Fiction: Timothy Aubry’s Reading as Therapy

June 28, 2011 | 5 books mentioned 6 7 min read

Why do people read literary fiction?

coverThis is the puzzle motivating English professor Timothy Aubry’s new study of American reading habits, Reading as Therapy. And it’s a good question. After all, everyone knows that America has a dead or dying literary culture, yet novels—including “literary” novels—continue to be written at a record-setting pace. Many of these novels find no audience, but some of them find a huge one. The audiences for such “best sellers” cut across class, gender and race, and their enthusiasm and size, contra highbrow suspicions, cannot always be attributed to clever marketing. What, Aubry asks, makes certain books appealing to broad bases of readers? How is it possible, given the supposedly dire literary climate, that an emotionally lacerating novel like The Kite Runner, or a famously difficult one, like Infinite Jest, can become a best seller, and, at least for a short time, a ubiquitous subject of national conversation?

There are easy and cynical answers to such questions. Perhaps people are drawn to novels that affirm their own self-image as intelligent, or empathetic—or maybe they look to fiction to validate selfish impulses and desires. Academics  are frequently attracted to such explanations, as they are  to glib dismissals of popular taste as founded on entertainment or shock value. This is just one of the things that distinguishes Aubry’s approach from much of what passes for scholarship in English departments today. Rather than searching for the “true cause” behind the embrace of certain books in America, Aubry takes readers at their word. What he finds is that most readers do not expect novels simply to entertain or inform them. Rather, they treat fiction “as a practical dispenser of advice or a form of therapy.” That is, they expect it will help them deal with problems in their lives.

covercoverThis diagnosis may come as no surprise to most non-academics, and it will remind some of Jonathan Franzen’s advocacy for the “Contract” model of literature in his 2003 essay, “Mr. Difficult.” The real power of Aubry’s book, however, lies in the close attention he pays to the way the “therapeutic paradigm” shapes the encounter between various American authors and their audience. The six novels Aubry treats—in addition to Infinite Jest, and The Kite Runner, he covers Toni Morrison’s Paradise, Rebecca Wells’s Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, and Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife —are all best sellers (with four bearing Oprah’s O-shaped seal). They might seem radically dissimilar, though, in the challenges they pose for readers. Infinite Jest and Paradise are experimental works that frustrate easy readerly identification, while Divine Secrets and The Pilot’s Wife both offer conventional immersion in a stirring domestic narrative. A Million Little Pieces was thought to be a heroically confessional memoir, before being revealed as a manipulative fabrication. Yet Aubry insists that the six books have something deeper in common: each acknowledges the supremacy of the “subjective interor,” which its American readers know to be “the site of greatest importance, complexity, depth and fulfillment in the world.” Although Aubry is agnostic about the value of this development, he has no doubts about its pervasiveness. The novels Americans read most, and how they read them, now inevitably reflect the triumph of the therapeutic.

In chapter after chapter, Aubry shows the therapeutic model at work through his sensitive readings, not only of the novels themselves, but also of data—TV interviews with authors, Amazon.com reader reviews—often ignored by critics. His first chapter, on Toni Morrison’s complicated Paradise, draws heavily from a transcript of the Oprah Winfrey Show. The episode devoted to Paradise begins with several audience members complaining to Morrison that they don’t “get” the book. Morrison responds by asking them what exactly they “don’t get.” It turns out, according to the author, that they have gotten more than they think. Moreover, she attempts to validate her readers’ initial confusion by affirming “that it is precisely the point that they not ‘get’ everything in the text.” The episode thus develops as an object lesson for middlebrow readers coping with “difficult” modern fiction.

But the interaction works the other way as well. According to Aubry, the episode is also a testament to the way difficult fiction justifies itself to therapeutic culture. The point is crystallized when an audience member questions the artistic value of Paradise, on account of its difficulty:

I was lost because I came into—I really wanted to read the book and love it and learn some life lessons; and when I got into it, it was so confusing I questioned the value of a book that is that hard to understand.

Here is Aubry’s insightful gloss on the comment:

The woman’s remark merits consideration. She, like many of Winfrey’s audience members, approaches literature with passion and a readiness to challenge herself intellectually. Paradise’s difficulty, however, effectively blocks her critical engagement. Her response echoes the observations made by [Oprah’s friend] Gayle King and Winfrey that Paradise might simply be “over our heads,” impossibly inaccessible…. Their comments imply a critique of the elitism and exclusiveness that characterize the entire world of so-called high culture along with the academic institutions, such as Princeton [where Morrison teaches], that support, celebrate, and embody this world.

The comments, as Aubry points out, pose a special problem for a writer like Morrison who (in the paradoxical manner of  many “highbrow” writers) claims to value inclusivity and tolerance even as she fills her novels with textual mysteries likely to defeat the enthusiasm of the common reader. And it is symptomatic that the author, aided by Winfrey, responds to the complaint, and others like it, by stressing that the difficulty of the book has a therapeutic purpose—namely, to help the reader deal with disorientation, and confusion, in life. “You have to open yourself,” Winfrey tells the woman, “It’s like a life experience. It’s getting to know people, getting to know people in a town. It’s not everything laid out.”

There is much to be said about such exchanges, and much of it gets said by Aubry. Just as important is what he does not say. Aubry does not conclude that the readers in Oprah’s audience are simply deluded or naïve. To be sure, their questions about the “payoff” of Morrison’s experimental strategies place them in a somewhat precarious position (what does it mean for a book to pay you off?), but no more precarious than Morrison’s (in what sense can she guarantee that her book is “worth” the effort it requires?). The “payoff” of the scene for Aubry’s readers, anyway, is clear. We get to watch as a critically acclaimed contemporary writer attempts to justify her practice to precisely the kind of readers she claims to be writing for. Can she do it? It will depend, Aubry implies, on whether she can make the case to such a reader that the novel, including its difficult or experimental elements, has therapeutic value.

If Paradise and Infinite Jest raise the question of how difficult literature can serve popularly therapeutic ends, the other books Aubry treats, like Wells’s Ya-Ya Sisterhood and Hosseini’s Kite Runner, pose a different question: Does what is often known as “sentimental literature” do enough to engage its readers politically or morally?

Aubry’s answer to the question, explored most forcefully in his exceptional final chapter, is a qualified “yes”—or, at least, a “more than you might think.” The chapter is structured around Aubry’s reading of thousands of Amazon.com reviews of The Kite Runner. Aubry interprets the reviews against arguments by academics like David Damrosch and Lawrence Venuti, who worry that normal readers have trouble “identifying” with foreign-born characters while also respecting their “otherness.” In fact, Aubry argues, the Amazon reviews reveal a surprisingly sophisticated variety of responses to the book, with readers balancing their recognition of the novel’s alien setting against their conviction that it speaks to “universal themes.” Aubry is aware that nobody in the academy any longer believes in literature as a repository of universal themes (a view Damrosch, for instance, equates with “amateurism”); against this prejudice, he stresses that it is only because the reader believes the novel addresses such themes that she is willing to seriously, and morally, concern herself with the particular story of Kite Runner’s traumatized Afghani protagonist, Amir.

Of course, empathy is a long way from political action, and left-wing commentators (beginning back with Benjamin and Brecht, and continuing now with Fredric Jameson and nearly everyone with a PhD in English), have long criticized sentimental art for promoting the illusion that strong feelings constitute an adequate response to suffering and injustice. One of the charms of Aubry’s method is that, as with Oprah’s enthusiasts, he refuses to condescend to the Amazon “amateurs” who claim to have had their curiosity, and sometimes their political conscience, aroused by Kite Runner. “I am now fascinated by Afghanistan and want to learn as much as possible about the country,” reports one reviewer. Another believes the novel may help Americans “begin to understand what has been done to the Afghani people.” Indeed, even in cases where readers articulate no political message, Aubry emphasizes that strong emotions can have effects far beyond momentary shifts in mood; and it is impossible to predict how the readers of Kite Runner will integrate their literary experience with other aspects of their lives.

The most common criticism of therapeutic fiction—that it functions for its readers as an escape from the social world—is therefore reductive, Aubry convincingly claims, since it “deliberately disregards the social character and social purchase of therapeutic discourse.” If there is any weakness in Reading as Therapy, however, it is in how often Aubry feels the need to insist on this point, as if he can never quite get clear of the now-conventional academic piety that art’s “justification” need be discovered in its political or social effects. In his conclusion, Aubry asks two questions which he pretends are really one: “What, after all, can contemporary novels accomplish?” and “What influence do they exert upon the public sphere?” What influence literature has in the public sphere is not a pointless question, but it is one that has been, so to speak, answered to death by cultural critics over the past four decades. What novels accomplish for their individual readers, on the other hand, seems the question Aubry has spent the book answering in therapeutic—which is to say primarily private—terms. Therapy would seem to be precisely the process whose accomplishments cannot be objectively quantified; presumably, a novel like Kite Runner could have no discernible political effect and still succeed as therapy.

In a rambling Amazon review quoted at length in the Kite Runner chapter, reader Roy Munson finally concludes that:

True redemption can only be found within the soul, and for each person redemption requires a separate definition and asking price. This book carries within it a whirlwind of human emotions, and a universal link to what we are intrinsically—connected. Any thought of separateness is in the mind.

The feeling Munson describes, and which he presumes it has been the novel’s task to demonstrate to him, is akin to the “oceanic” emotion Freud identified as basic to the religious mindset. Academic critics, long hostile to terms like “redemption” and “soul,” have tried for some time now to convince their readers that literature can or should be about culture or politics or economics; the result has been that academic critics no longer have any readers. That art speaks to the inner-lives of men and women, and encourages empathy between them, remains the prevailing assumption of the average reader, not to mention most of its creators (cf. David Foster Wallace’s oft-quoted assertion that fiction makes us “less alone inside”). Whether that assumption is voiced in quasi-religious (as in Munson’s case), or in therapeutic (as in Oprah’s) terms, it is not clear that commentators on literature can or should do without it. As Aubry shows, it may be just this assumption that accounts for the remarkable persistence of the novel today.

is a founding editor of The Point. He is currently in graduate school at the University of Chicago.