Sure, novels didn’t turn generations of young women into energetic homewreckers. They didn’t transform young men into generations of wall-eyed murderers, either.
But religious authorities were correct that something was stirring in the deep waters of culture. Novels really do change you. They focus your attention on the deep interiority of the characters, letting you both empathize with human lives while also standing askance from them, studying them from a slightly alien perspective. They might make us more empathetic. They almost certainly attune us to the psychologies that propel everyday behavior. They can massively expand our intellectual vistas — giving us the visionary power that Northrop Frye called “the educated imagination”.
Personally speaking, I have turned to novels during lockdown to ‘destroy my mind’, a mind encapsulated by monotony. I have found that they have provided an escape from the mundane.