According to social epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, economic inequality is at the root of many health and social problems in modern fully-fledged democracies. General distrust of others, mental illness, drug and alcohol addiction, reduced life expectancy, high infant mortality, obesity, impaired educational performance, teenage pregnancy, homicides, high rates of imprisonment, and reduced social mobility, they conclude, come about in large part due to social dominance structures fostered by economic inequality, and not due to a low average income across a given population as one prominent counter-explanation proposes. In countries such as Japan and Sweden, for example, the wealthiest top 20% of the population is no more than 4 times as wealthy as the bottom 20% (p. 15). However, in countries such as Portugal, Singapore, the UK and the USA, the most wealthy 20% are 7-9 times richer than the bottom 20%. The authors show time and time again that the inhabitants of Japan and Sweden suffer much less from almost every societal ill than do more economically unequal countries. The authors claim, “What matters is where we stand in relation to others in our own society” (p. 25).
Inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville’s argument that great discrepancies in material living standards inhibit interpersonal empathy, the authors of The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (2010) present a social-psychological explanation: if there are major income and social capital differences between persons, there will be those of low social status, those of high social status, and a range in between. The hierarchy creates anxiety among both low and high status individuals: there’s always the threat of arbitrary bullying of the low status members by those of high status and always the threat of retaliation and rebellion by the low status members toward the high status members. The arrangement prevents interpersonal trust from developing, which in turn prevents cooperation. Relationships deteriorate because there is always the social status elephant in the room, a room in which inclusiveness and empathy have no place.
While reading this book, which is impressive in the number of empirical studies cited in support of the correlative and in some cases causal connections between inequality and social degeneration, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to examine fiction reading in the jurisdictions that Wilkinson and Pickett discuss. Are there reliable correlations between fiction-reading practices and levels of equality in a nation or state? Does the race toward dominance prevent attention to or time for such reading? Does more equality among inhabitants correlate with particular kinds of immersive engagement or disengagement with novels and short stories? Is more fiction published in jurisdictions in which inhabitants are more economically equal? Is the quality of the fiction produced by writers in more equal jurisdictions better? Do public schools in more equal societies invest more time in having students read and write fiction? Do members of more equal societies talk about the fiction they have read, participate more in book clubs, or tend more often to cite literary characters in their conversations? The list could go on, and I welcome readers' contributions to it. Answers to these questions would contribute in an important way, I believe, to research on economic inequality and its correlates.