Science Says Literary Readers Understand Emotions Better than Commercial Fiction Readers

A new study says literary fiction helps readers empathize while pop fiction doesn’t

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There’s nothing that the book world likes to debate more than the differences between literary fiction and commercial or genre fiction. Is “literary fiction” truly different? Are genres just marketing categories? Is commercial fiction unfairly maligned?

Adding fuel to this debate is a new study that found that readers of literary fiction — but not commercial fiction — have a better understanding of other people’s emotions. The study, which was published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, made 2,000 people do a “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test” where they looked at photos of actors displaying different feelings and tried to pick the right emotion. The participants were also asked to say which authors they recognized from a list of names that included literary authors like Kazuo Ishiguro and Salman Rushdie as well as commercial authors like Tom Clancy and Stephen King. The result was clear:

Results indicate that exposure to literary but not genre fiction positively predicts performance on a test of theory of mind, even when accounting for demographic variables including age, gender, educational attainment, undergraduate major.

Why is this the case? The studies authors, David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, suggest it is literary fiction’s focus on character over plot:

We propose that these findings emerge because the implied (rather than explicit) socio-cognitive complexity, or roundness of characters, in literary fiction prompts readers to make, adjust, and consider multiple interpretations of characters’ mental states.

If this study sounds familar, it may be because a simlar study by the same researchers received a lot of attention (and criticism) in 2013. However, that study 0nly looked at people who had just been asked to read a passage of literary fiction or commercial fiction. This time, they were hoping to look at a lifetime of reading.

According to The Guardian, the researchers stressed that this didn’t mean literary fiction was the only fiction with value.

“This is not to say that reading popular genre fiction cannot be enjoyable or beneficial for other reasons — we suspect it is,” agreed Kidd. “Nor does the present evidence point towards a clear and consistent distinction between literary and popular genre fiction. Instead, it suggests that the broad distinction between relatively complex literary and relatively formulaic genre fiction can help us better understand how engaging with fiction affects how we think.”

So should literary fiction readers rub this study in their pop fiction reader friends faces? Well, hopefully their literary diet has given them increased empathy to know not to do that.

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