Apparently, reading literary fiction makes you more empathetic than genre fiction. At least according to one study. I heard about this while listening to a BookRiot podcast (Episode #22, if you’re interested in listening to it). A recent study suggests that reading literary fiction for even a few minutes leads to higher scores on tests that measure empathy, social cues, and emotional intelligence. This is compared to reading genre fiction (romance, popular fiction, thriller) or to reading nothing at all.
As you guys may know, I’m not the most… I don’t even know how to say it. I’m not particularly nice. I can be cold, and callous, more often than not.
And so when I heard this, my first thought was “Man, maybe I should read more literary fiction!”
When I think about literary fiction that I’ve read, a few books come to mind – Norwegian Wood, A Visit From the Goon Squad, and (currently) The Corrections, for example. As some of you know, I HATED these books. For the most part, the books were tedious and the characters were whiny and infuriating. If I saw Chip (the Corrections readalong ladies know who I’m talking about) was alive and on fire in front of me, I doubt I’d bother calling for help. These books make me irritated and snarky and kind of mean. So then my NEXT thought was “Jesus, what the hell is wrong with me? The very thing that make most people MORE empathetic turns me into a raging, unfeeling monster!” Then I thought about it more, and there are other books that I’ve read that I might consider literary fiction, but that I don’t see put under that label often – The Poisonwood Bible, Rules of Civility, White Oleander – that I actually loved, that make me happy and thoughtful while reading. My mood and frame of mind would be very different, depending on if I read from The Corrections or White Oleander. If that’s the case for me, and I can think of people I know who are FANTASTIC in social situation but only read romance and fantasy novels… what does that mean?
I have no idea how accurate this study can possibly be. After all, they just said “tests that measure empathy” – not sure if that means the tests are Facebook-like quizzes, or if they did brain scans to compare activity in the brain during and after reading. The article says five experiments were done, but doesn’t say how many participants there were, if or how they controlled for personal preferences and experiences, how the books were selected, if they had each participant read multiple genres and tested them after each one, or, most importantly I think – how they defined literary fiction.
The term “literary fiction” has been bothering me for a while now, for two reasons. One reason is because more often than not, when I try a literary fiction novel (one I’ve heard referred to as such) I end up disappointed. The second reason is that the label itself just sounds snobby and as if someone is trying to make these books seem smarter or more worthwhile than other books.
It’s almost impossible to find a solid definition of the term “literary fiction” online. Here is what Wikipedia has to say – I know it’s not the most reliable of sources, but it matched my impressions of the term pretty well:
Literary fiction is a term principally used for certain fictional works that are claimed to hold literary merit.
Despite the fact that all genres have works that are well written, those works are generally not considered literary fiction. To be considered literary, a work usually must be “critically acclaimed” and “serious”. In practice, works of literary fiction often are “complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas”.
Try typing “literary fiction definition” into Google and a bunch of articles trying to define it come up, but none of them really nail it. There’s nothing specific about literary fiction novels that we can pinpoint and say “YES. THAT’S what makes it literary fiction.” The closest thing I saw was that the novel tends to be character-driven, but there are plenty of character-driven books throughout all the genres. Is it novels that are taught in schools, novels that make a bestseller list or win certain awards, is it novels that we consider classics, is it novels that employ unique literary schemes or devices? There’s no clear-cut answer, at least from what I can see.
This is why I’m uncomfortable with this study, that claims reading literary fiction can make you better at reading facial clues and experiencing empathy. How can researchers make such claims based on something that seems to lack a specific defining quality? I’m not a scientist by any means, but this seems… not scientific. Since there are so many variables and not a solid definition of the very subject being tested, it seems irresponsible to be making claims like this, and to be suggesting that educators change their curriculum based on these findings. Especially in today’s day and age – teachers are lucky if they can get their students to read anything, and urging them to focus on literary fiction (whatever that means) gives the impression that other genres have little to no merit or benefit.
Personally, I think we could all do without the label of “literary fiction”. If it doesn’t fit in one of the more easily recognizable genres (mystery, romance, sci-fi/fantasy), couldn’t we just call it general fiction? Is it really necessary to try to make certain novels seem more highbrow than other fiction, when there’s really no means of recognizing whatever that term means? Or is this something that’s just perpetuated by the “Chips” of the academic and professional world for their own means?
Anyways, these are my thoughts. Have you heard about this study? How do you define literary fiction? What are your thoughts? Chat with me!