What is literary fiction anyways?

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.

(Hi, I'm Sarah, have we met?)

(Hi, I’m Sarah, have we met?)

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”.[1] In practice, works of literary fiction often are “complex, literate, multilayered novels that wrestle with universal dilemmas”.[2]

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!

~Sarah

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32 comments

  1. I’ve heard about this study too, and thought it was bogus…primarily because literary fiction is so diverse, the book could be about anything. How would you even do a study on that?

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  2. Yeah, obviously how the test was done makes a difference, and I have no clue on that… but when I heard it, my first thought was, “Maybe it’s just that people who are already more empathetic are more likely to read literary fiction.”

    I agree, it’s not the greatest label. Seems to be one of those “I know it when I see it” kind of things.

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    1. “Maybe it’s just that people who are already more empathetic are more likely to read literary fiction.”

      GOOD POINT. But then I also thought of my friend, she reads like nothing but romance and the occasional non-fic or fantasy, and she’s SUCH a people person. She’s a socializing wizard, able to talk to and relate to so many people. So yeah, this study has some flaws. Personality has to play a part somewhere.

      It definitely is one of those “I know it when I see it” kind of things… and I was thinking that’s kind of the way for chick-lit and YA too, but even those have defining qualities – chick-lit will always have a female protagonist, YA will always have a teen or pre-teen protagonist, etc. Lit fiction doesn’t even have THAT.

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  3. Thank you for pointing out that the definition of “literary fiction” is completely subjective and impossible to pinpoint. It drives me crazy! It’s really helpful when “studies” make claims like this when the major variable is the definition of the basic concept. I think this post will remind people to take these studies with a grain of salt 🙂

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    1. Thanks 🙂 Normally I’m all for studies that show how awesome reading is, but when you try to say that science shows that only highbrow serious fiction (that lacks definition) is great for people’s social skills, it makes me wonder who’s funding the study, you know? And the fact that literary fiction is so undefinable is frustrating.

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  4. I definitely believe that reading fiction helps people with empathy, but, as you say, “literary” is such a subjective description it would be impossible to say that “literary fiction develops empathy but general fiction doesn’t.” Surely anything that gives you a viewpoint into what it must be like to be someone who isn’t you, makes you more empathetic, whether that is a divorced politician or a housewife with a shoe addiction or a miserable robot aboard a spaceship?

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  5. I feel like literary fiction is, like, any book where you learn something new about humanity, or life, and it’s also kind of super well written. Which… is a really crap definition because I can definitely think of things I’ve learnt from Stephen King books and he is ABSOLUTELY genre fiction so yeah.

    I don’t know. I can’t get too angry about the study because I do read a looooooot of literary fiction, but it does seem kind of ridiculous to say that genre fiction DOESN’T increase empathy etc etc. Because I kind of think most reading does that in general because helloooooo putting yourself into someone else’s shoes and walking around in them.

    In summary, books are great.

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    1. I think maybe this study hit a nerve particularly because we’re reading The Corrections, and Franzen is praised as a literary fiction author, and… come on. And yeah, you can learn humanity and life lessons in any kind of book! Pinning it down to only what’s considered literary fiction is just ridiculous.

      Agreed, books are great. ALL THE BOOKS!

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  6. I know in my undergrad (which was full of fights with assholes about the merits of genre fic) we were taught that lit fic were character studies and genre fic were world/environment/plot driven. But that’s not really my personal experience.

    Literary fiction can almost always fit into actual genres, but for whatever reason the publishers don’t want to market it that way. Margaret Atwood writes dystopian novels almost exclusively but you’d never catch her in the fantasy/sci-fi section, Franzen writes family drama but he’s never in the ordinary fiction section. I guess it’s mostly because they want to separate themselves from the more trashy or badly written genre fic (thinking of the 10,000 Twilight clones that came out) which is fine, but when you then try and write a study about it being “better”? Blechhh.

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    1. OH man, I would’ve enjoyed seeing your arguments with jerks about lit vs genre fiction.

      Literary fiction can usually fit into other genres, you’re totally right. And even if it doesn’t… why isn’t just “fiction” fine? Why does it have to be put on a “literary fiction” display or shelf? Just to make people who read those authors feel smarter that people who read regular fic? That’s just silly. Stupid labels.

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    1. I am really curious how they measure empathy – which by itself, is a difficult emotion to define and specify exactly since it’s so closely related to sympathy, pity, concern, etc. That article makes it sound like people took tests where they tried to look at pics of people’s faces and name the mood or feeling being displayed, which seriously doesn’t sound any more scientific than a Facebook quiz…

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  7. I think it’s the place that we can dump any piece of fiction that is not genre fiction. As for the studies, I never seem to fit within the confines of them. I like literary fiction, but I don’t know if I can attribute that to my ability to empathize. And for sure miss just about every facial clue sent my way. So whatever.

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    1. I bet a lot of people wouldn’t necessarily fit in with this study. Like I said, I don’t see how it could be accurate, given how different people are and how loose the term literary fiction is…

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  8. I agree that this label of “literary fiction” is dangerous. It brings up the age-old debate about what makes any work of literature worthy of being included in the canon. Who gets to choose what is (quote) literature and what is not? If we relied on the original standards of canonizing works of lit, we’d have missed many fantastic writers and genres over the past few centuries.

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  9. Three cheers for a rousing round of Methodology Corner! I remember hearing about this on the Book Riot podcast and raising an eyebrow and going “reeeeallllyyyy?” because, as someone who considers themselves fairly empathetic, in addition to completely cynical, I don’t read that much “literary fiction” because it all seems way to much Middle Class Suburbanites With Problems for my tastes. Great post!

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    1. “Middle Class Suburbanites With Problems”

      OMG yes. That’s my experience with a lot of books under the lit fic label too, blech.

      I’m really loving the BookRiot podcasts. I find something really interesting and discussion worthy in almost each episode, but I restrain from doing posts like this too much, lol.

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  10. I am doing all the clapping right now. Applause from Illinois!!! Defining literary fiction is difficult, and when I hear a book described as such I immediately think it’s going to be pretentious. Sooo if I don’t like lit fic, I’m bad at empathy? I’m actually REALLY good at empathy… Or just overly emotional. That’s a matter for debate. But this study? Hogwash. And “literary fiction” and its lack of definition? Well. DOUBLE hogwash!

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    1. Hogwash indeed. And even though I’m not generally nice or particularly caring towards people in general… when it relates to people I care about I’m TOO empathetic. Seriously, it can’t be something you can measure.

      Also, the worth empathy always makes me think of Charmed, cause Pheobe was an empath. Not that this has any importance, I just can’t think of empathy without thinking of Charmed. What a great show.

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  11. Ahhh, literary fiction! What ARE you? Why can’t we define you? The weird thing is that when I’m reading lit fic, I know it. I recognize it while I’m reading it. BUT if you asked me to define it? Ha! I’d be all, “Um it’s good and..um it’s kinda serious I guess? Yea, good and literary. Derp.”

    I do tend to read more of those books than anything else. But the term “literary fiction” kinda makes me feel like a snobby snob. Probably because so many folks take umbrage at that term? I see why they do though!

    Bah to that study. Bah to anything that divides readers into camps!

    😀 Great post!

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    1. Bah to anything that divides readers, exactly! I think that’s what bugs me most – that this study is promoting literary fiction over other genres, when they ALL have really fantastic books worth reading. It’s as if they’re saying that fantasy or romance can’t have well-developed, character-based stories, and they absolutely do.

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  12. Ha! I hadn’t heard about that study, but I know for damn sure Jonathan Franzen’s bs isn’t going to make me a better person in any way. Other literary fiction, I’ve read, more likely. I actually challenged myself to read mostly literary fiction for the better part of a year, and I found that some if it was excellent and some of it was shit. Just like any other genre. If you want to read more like my half-baked definition (MARKETING PLOY) you can see my posts here: http://estellasrevenge.blogspot.com/search?q=literary+fiction

    GREAT post, you!

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    1. I’m pretty sure reading Franzen is turning me into a more grouchy person.

      I looked at your posts, and I love this:
      “I’ve pretty much decided that literary fiction is fiction marketed as literary fiction”

      YES. That is like the perfect definition – it’s fiction that someone somewhere decided to label as literary fiction. And this study makes me wonder if there are some big literary fiction publishers funding that study and paying to skew the results. That’s very cynical of me… but it crossed my mind.

      I also completely agree with your least favorite lit fic reads – those would be on my list too.

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  13. I read an amazing article a while back about what defines literary fiction and it was the best definition I have come across yet. It talked about long titles, a focus on everyday happenings and relationships, and characters that evolve or learn something about themselves. It’s about broken pieces and finding ways, albeit imperfect, to put things back together.

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