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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds Very, very important question. Do you think literature, poetry, fiction can be harmful?

Skip to 0 minutes and 22 seconds My short answer is, I don’t know. I think anything can cause harm, but I would never have found it so. We don’t administer literature on a drip. Everyone can close a book. Or they can go back a line.

Skip to 0 minutes and 40 seconds One very useful tool is an anthology because it gives them a chance to choose what they want. I think agency and choice is very important. So Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar might be life-changing to someone, and actually very unhelpful and possibly destructive to another. There is the potential to do harm if you’re in a very vulnerable place and you’re sort of reading some work that either romanticises or glorifies suicide or self-harm. But you’re absolutely right, Paula. It’s exactly the same with all of the drugs that we prescribe.

Skip to 1 minute and 19 seconds I know that drugs can be harmful. So let’s not forget that antidepressants, any other drug we give, can be harmful.

Skip to 1 minute and 28 seconds There are no side effects of poetry, and I’m a believer in that. There are no side effects. What’s the worst that can happen? I think it might be harmful if someone in a position of authority, like a teacher or an undergraduate tutor or a doctor, says you should read this. This will help. I mean, do you think poetry can be harmful? It can be harmful. It could get in the way of, why did that doctor give me that? But poetry can be extraordinarily helpful and beneficial. I mean, we know that historically. I know that through practise. Philip Sidney said the aim of poetry is to teach and to delight.

Skip to 2 minutes and 4 seconds I think if anyone’s reading responsibly, then I don’t see the harm in it. I would hope– I’d vouch for it healing, rather than hurting. I think that it’s such a reservoir of– the whole of literary history, there’s so much there for us to dip into and to find what we need. And it would be a bit devastating to imagine that it could hurt. I think it’s more likely to help. Helps me.

Talking point: can literature be harmful?

In the previous step, we reflected on Anne Elliot’s advice to Captain Benwick, that poetry might sometimes exacerbate rather than relieve distress.

We end the week by listening to the views of some of our course contributors on the same subject. We asked them whether they thought that literature could sometimes be harmful rather than helpful. You can listen to their answers in the video above.

Once you’ve watched the video, take a moment to reflect on the question for yourself.

  • Do you think literature can sometimes be harmful rather than helpful? Are there any potential ‘side effects’ of reading?

Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas in the comment section below.

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This video is from the free online course:

Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

The University of Warwick

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