Ralph James Savarese


On his book See It Feelingly: Classic Novels, Autistic Readers, and the Schooling of a No-Good English Professor

Cover Interview of March 13, 2019

In a nutshell

Can autistic people, across the spectrum, read literary fiction? Can they enjoy and profit from the experience? For years, experts have said no. A “triad of impairments”—in language, social understanding, and imagination—made literature a bad fit for the autistic brain. This population, the logic went, was better suited to mathematical or scientific endeavors, arenas that don’t depend on “theory of mind” or a nuanced appreciation of figurative language. (The former involves the ability to ascertain the mental states of others; the latter involves the ability to handle sentences like this one: “Fiction is a moody jungle-gym of make-believe conflict.”) This view of autism became so prevalent that a best-selling novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, used social and metaphorical bafflement as a central aspect of the protagonist’s characterization. My book offers a radically opposing view. An ethnographic project involving six autistic readers, See It Feelingly presents the rich, and sometimes richly different, responses to literary works by people whom the medical community would describe as “impaired” but who would describe themselves as “neurodivergent”—distinctive neurologically. My collaborators include my son, DJ Savarese (with him I discussed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn); Tito Mukhopadhyay (Moby-Dick); Jamie Burke (Ceremony); Dora Raymaker (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?); Eugenie Belkin (The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter); and Temple Grandin (two short stories from Among Animals: The Lives of Animals and Humans in Contemporary Short Fiction). Referencing the burgeoning field of cognitive literary studies, which asks what our brain is doing when we read literature, See It Feelingly seeks to explore the nature of fiction’s hold on us: in particular, its powerful emotional appeal and its ability to acquaint us with people very different from ourselves.