Does Reading Literary Fiction Make You a Better Person? I’m Skeptical

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I am a fan of that type of fiction often called literary. It takes up the biggest chunk of my reading diet. Even when I read genre fiction, it tends to be of the type that is often embraced in the literary fiction world. (Think Kate Atkinson’s crime novels or Margaret Atwood’s science fiction.) Apparently research has shown that this makes me a more understanding and sympathetic person.

Or does it?

A study reported on in the Guardian found that participants who recognized more literary fiction authors on a list did better on a test in which they were asked to identify what emotion a person in a photo was likely feeling. This test determines a person’s ability to infer others’ feelings.

Setting aside the whole question of what is literary and what isn’t (that’s a rant for another day—or perhaps never), do you see the problem here? If not, let me spell it out: Recognizing authors is not the same as reading them!

Knowing who Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison are could mean you read newspapers, where they get a lot of coverage. It could mean you walk past a bookstore every day where their works tend to be prominently displayed. It could just mean having a certain degree of cultural literacy. It does not mean reading them. I was aware of both of these authors for years and years before I read either one.

So I’m calling foul on that study. It seems I’m not a good person because of what I read.

But wait! The same researchers, David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, did an earlier study that involved actual reading. In that study, they had participants actually read extracts of literary and genre fiction before being tested on their ability to recognize others’ emotions. This study is perhaps a little bit better. It does involve reading, but I am still skeptical.

For one thing, it would be way to easy to choose extracts that fit too tidily into preconceived notions of what is literary and what isn’t. An earlier Guardian article indicates that they chose the literary extracts from the 2012 Pen/O. Henry Prize Stories, which includes the likes of Alice Munro and Wendell Berry, and the U.S. National Book Award finalists.

That seems fair enough, but the Guardian article doesn’t say where the genre extracts came from. The 2012 Hugo Award winner Among Others by Jo Walton? Louise Penny’s Agatha Award winner The Beautiful Mystery? Or did they make sure to go with something that did not require readers to, in Kidd’s words, “fill in the gaps and participate.”

Scientific American article mentions Danielle Steel’s The Sins of the Mother. I have nothing to say about the quality of Steel’s writing (having never read her), but I note that she wasn’t on the 2012 list of RITA finalists, and Google offers up zero book awards for Steel. So is the study really comparing reading a mega-best-seller with no awards to reading award winners (regardless of sales)? Seems like the most critically celebrated literary fiction should have gone up against the most critically celebrated genre fiction if this was to be a fair fight.

Even if the selections were fair, did the results persist? And does reading a whole story or novel (which is what most readers would do!) elicit different results from reading an extract? What does this even have to do with real-world reading?

The researchers note that they’re not saying that reading genre fiction doesn’t have benefits, which is nice, I guess. But, of course, headlines about this kind of research tend to send the message not only that literary fiction is superior to genre fiction but the literary fiction readers are superior to genre fiction readers. That does not seem like a good result. In fact, if we literary fiction readers use articles like these as an opportunity to crow about our great reading choices, we end up looking like worse people. So let’s just not.