I am writing this blog post on the last day of National Reading Month, a featured period of time that may become quaint in the years ahead. For now, though, it has comprised several weeks of recommendations, read-ins, read-aloud marathons, and general hoopla around the joys and benefits of reading. And for several years now, the researchers David Kidd and Emanuele Castano have been tying reading to a specific outcome that many feel is woefully lacking in our political life: empathy. In particular, they have linked the growth of empathy to the reading of literary fiction, which, more than reading genre fiction, nonfiction, or nothing at all, appears in their test scores to promote more empathy in readers of all persuasions than the other choices.
There are all sorts of problematic things about a study of this kind, not the least of which are the definitions of empathy and literary. Tempting as it is for a writer of so-called literary fiction to proclaim that her work will demonstrably improve your character, I do well to question the validity of studies that reinforce my own prejudices. Fortunately, the researchers are fairly precise about their definition of empathy. They place it in the context of “Theory of Mind,” (ToM) “the human capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one’s own beliefs and desires.” They further distinguish between “affective ToM (the ability to detect and understand others’ emotions) and cognitive ToM (the inference and representation of others’ beliefs and intentions),” linking the affective component with empathy. In other words, you may differentiate others from yourself, deduce something about how they think or feel by various signals, and be able to draw a picture, as it were, of what you figure to be their point of view. But you only empathize with them when you actually penetrate their emotional state and are able to internalize it, regardless of their difference from you.
Thus far, this seems straightforward. Things get a little dicier when the researchers approach this issue of literary versus popular or genre fiction. Both imagine a world with characters in it whose motives and emotional frameworks differ from the reader’s. The battle over who gets to claim the mantle of “literary” has waged within the world of fiction (and, to a lesser extent, nonfiction) for years. As The Guardian reported recently, “Literary authors are the luxury brands of the writing world [but] the people who actually buy books, in thumpingly large numbers, are genre readers.” Novelists who manage both to gain respect from award judges and reviewers but also sell in big numbers, like David Mitchell, Hilary Mantel, Michael Chabon, and Donna Tartt, have generally claimed they pay no attention whatever to this supposed divide. To Mitchell, “The novel’s the boss”; Chabon claims, “I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain.” Kidd and Castano draw on various literary theorists to set a dividing line that actual readers may place at different points on the spectrum. (Exhibit A: Stephen King.) According to their earlier essay, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” theorists like Barthes, Bakhtin, and Bruner have established criteria that allow us to claim that literary work “uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences.” Genre fiction, by contrast, “tends to portray the world and characters as internally consistent and predictable [and thus] may reaffirm readers’ expectations and so not promote ToM.” Their more recent essay, “Different Stories: How Level of Experience with Literary and Genre Fiction Relate to Mentalizing,” narrows the focus to characterization, where literary fiction “tends to flout polarized agonistic structures or discrete personalities, developing instead complex characters” whereas genre fiction “places[s] stock characters in central roles.”
I don’t know the work of all the theorists the studies cite; nor do I have the statistical training to engage with the graphs and charts they proffer to support their conclusions. I do know that literary essays, like psychological studies, need to be read carefully and with expertise. For instance, Kidd and Castano happily cite E.M. Forster’s famous distinction between round and flat characters to support their distinction between high- and lowbrow fiction. But Forster actually recommends flat characterization, to a degree; “a novel that is at all complex often requires flat people as well as round, and the outcome of their collisions parallels life.”
I also know that fiction-reading is a habit, and like any habit, its effects begin with inclination and accrue over time. For their experiment, the psychologists assembled short texts — sometimes excerpts from longer works, sometimes short fiction — using criteria that seem, at least to this author, questionable. For instance, one experiment drew its materials on the one hand from an anthology of “popular fiction” published in 1998 and including stories from the previous two centuries, and on the other hand from the 2012 Pen/O. Henry award series. They also used the ART, or Author Recognition Test, to establish participants’ familiarity with certain types of literature.
There may be some demonstrable effect from reading short snippets of two different types of writing, but I’m not convinced that it’s the same kind of effect that comes from an extended reading habit. Even if it were the same sort of effect, one’s engagement with a story written in the last 10 years would perforce be different, and quite likely in terms of empathy, from one’s engagement with a story from 1880. Finally, though most authors, and many self-styled “serious readers,” follow an author’s work and career, most readers I know have much the same relationship to author recognition that I have to film-director recognition, which is to say slight. They read the book, not the author, and as far as I can tell this tendency holds true regardless of the work’s place on the popular-literary spectrum.
Look, we need empathy in this Machiavellian world. I love reading fabulously written, emotionally complex books, and I hope you do, too. But I’m not ready to call literature an empathy factory. It may not always be good for you, for all I know. It’s just great, all on its own.