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Reading as Therapy

What Contemporary Fiction Does for Middle-Class Americans

Timothy Aubry

Publication Year: 2011

Why do Americans read contemporary fiction? This question seems simple, but is it? Do Americans read for the purpose of aesthetic appreciation? To satisfy their own insatiable intellectual curiosities? While other forms of media have come to monopolize consumers’ leisure time, in the past two decades book clubs have proliferated, Amazon has sponsored thriving online discussions, Oprah Winfrey has inspired millions of viewers to read both contemporary works and classics, and novels have retained their devoted following within middlebrow communities.
In Reading as Therapy, Timothy Aubry argues that contemporary fiction serves primarily as a therapeutic tool for lonely, dissatisfied middle-class American readers, one that validates their own private dysfunctions while supporting elusive communities of strangers unified by shared feelings. Aubry persuasively makes the case that contemporary literature’s persistent appeal depends upon its capacity to perform a therapeutic function.
Aubry traces the growth and proliferation of psychological concepts focused on the subjective interior within mainstream, middle-class society and the impact this has had on contemporary fiction. The prevailing tendency among academic critics has been to decry the personal emphasis of contemporary fiction as complicit with the rise of a narcissistic culture, the ascendency of liberal individualism, and the breakdown of public life. Reading as Therapy, by contrast, underscores the varied ideological effects that therapeutic culture can foster.
To uncover the many unpredictable ways in which contemporary literature answers the psychological needs of its readers, Aubry considers several different venues of reader-response—including Oprah’s Book Club and Amazon customer reviews—the promotional strategies of publishing houses, and a variety of contemporary texts, ranging from Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner to Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. He concludes that, in the face of an atomistic social landscape, contemporary fiction gives readers a therapeutic vocabulary that both reinforces the private sphere and creates surprising forms of sympathy and solidarity among strangers.


Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

Several research grants made it possible for me to finish this book. I was supported in the 2007–2008 and the 2008–2009 academic years by PSC-CUNY, and in the spring of 2007 and the fall of 2008 by the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Fund. I am especially grateful to the Whiting Foundation, whose generous grant allowed me to devote the 2007–...

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pp. 1-42

How does fiction help people? What forms of emotional support do books provide? Do they stave off loneliness? Do they offer useful examples of how to lead or how not to lead one’s life? Why is the tingle of self-recognition that accompanies identification with a fictional character so satisfying?

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Chapter One - Searching for Paradise on The Oprah Winfrey Show

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pp. 43-70

Just a few sentences away from finishing Toni Morrison’s Paradise, an arduous journey almost completed, the reader encounters an image of similarly exhausted travelers and a warning that the real work has only just begun: “When the ocean heaves sending rhythms of water ashore, Piedade looks to see what has come. ...

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Chapter Two - Therapy and Displacement in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

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pp. 71-96

Bewildered by crowds, factories, and cities of unprecedented scale, Americans in the late nineteenth century turned to novels about small towns, local customs, and preindustrial crafts. The genre they embraced, now known as regionalism, depicted the idiosyncrasies of tight-knit rural communities in New England, the South, and the newly settled Midwest and, while subtly acknowledging the threat of sweeping change, ...

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Chapter Three - Infinite Jest and the Recovery of Feeling

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pp. 97-126

Narratives of addiction are irresistible. The strangely appealing opportunity to observe, imagine, or inhabit vicariously the scenes of pleasure, transgression, abjection, and redemption that these narratives typically unfold has come to function as a substitute gratification capable of replacing the substances whose addictive properties they document. Recognizing this potential, Bill Wilson and Robert Smith, ...

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Chapter Four - The Pain of Reading A Million Little Pieces

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pp. 127-150

The revelation that James Frey’s best-selling memoir about his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, A Million Little Pieces, contains multiple lies and exaggerations has evidently undermined its value for many readers. Oprah Winfrey concluded her punishing interview with Frey subsequent to the public exposure of his dishonesty with this declaration: “And I believe that the truth matters”— a fitting remark insofar as an encounter with “the truth” ...

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Chapter Five - The Politics of Interiority in The Pilot’s Wife

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pp. 151-174

Although occasionally called upon to perform certain emeritus functions, the omniscient narrator has mostly retired from the scene of contemporary U.S. fiction. In the place of this appealingly wise but problematic figure emerges an array of speakers no less ignorant, prejudiced, and confused than the reader. First-person narrators, of course, have a long history of unreliability, ...

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Chapter Six - Reading The Kite Runner in America

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pp. 175-198

The effusive customer reviews of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner posted on Amazon often register surprise: Many Americans were initially reluctant to read what they perceived to be “foreign” fiction.1 Their short-lived resistance and their subsequent enthusiasm raise an important question. What does this novel, largely about Afghanistan, offer American readers? ...

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pp. 199-208

If psychological discourse functions as the basis for individualism, as the means of ascribing to each and every person a unique and private interior life, it has also come to serve, especially in recent years, as a powerful leveler, one that asserts a common humanity across various cultural, racial, economic, and political categories. But as a tool, the therapeutic has largely answered the needs of particular groups, ...


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pp. 209-228


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pp. 229-254


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pp. 255-258

E-ISBN-13: 9781587299568

Page Count: 258
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 719388645
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Reading as Therapy

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Reading -- Psychological aspects.
  • Books and reading -- United States.
  • Bibliotherapy.
  • Fiction -- History and criticism -- Theory, etc.
  • Literature and society -- United States.
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