Can Reading Literary Fiction Make You a Better Person?

The Round HouseMy dad—and many others in my life—claim that they only read non-fiction. Long ago I stopped trying to convince my dad to read a novel, but maybe this study would change his mind.

A study out of The New School in New York City that was published in Science shows that readers of literary fiction (versus commercial fiction or nothing at all) are better able to identify other people’s emotions. The idea here is that reading quality literature might make a person more empathetic.

An NPR interview with David Kidd, who helped conduct the study, along with big name authors like Rebecca Mead, generated many interesting questions:

What distinguishes literary fiction from popular fiction?

What does the word “literary” really mean?

What is the purpose of reading literary fiction, or of reading at all?

A distinction offered by the participants between literary and popular fiction was the focus on character development versus plot. In popular fiction, characters are often markedly good or markedly bad, and for that reason, popular fiction is thought to be more simplistic and formulaic than literary fiction. Also, literary fiction tends to invite multiple interpretations.

Some on the program argued that it shouldn’t matter whether we read literary or commercial fiction, only that we read at all. This especially makes sense when we talk about children. When you’re starving, said a school teacher who called in, you just need to eat. However, the participants in the study who read a Danielle Steel novel showed no increase in their ability for empathy.

Mead complained about the New York Times’ coverage of the study: the NYT seemed to be saying that the value of fiction is self-improvement, Mead said, akin to eating your vegetables, and we shouldn’t portray literature as a chore.

The question of the value of literature is a very intriguing one, and apparently one that even scientists are now exploring.

Both as a culture and within our own families, we need to construct a narrative about why literature matters. It’s interesting but not at all surprising that we are using personal development as a talking point.


2 thoughts on “Can Reading Literary Fiction Make You a Better Person?

  1. I remember when this study came out. I believe its findings, but I think that reading literary fiction can do more than simply increase one’s empathy for others. Well-constructed, carefully thought-out fiction that focuses on character development displays for the reader a sort of moral calculus: the thoughts, impulses, and context that factor into a character’s decision to act or not act, and the consequences therefrom, for that individual character and her fictional world. By reading fictional portrayals of such moral decision-making, we gain empathy for the choices and fates of actual persons we know. But we also gain insight into the moral decision-making process itself, to better guide our own choices.

    One of my undergraduate professors told me that “The study of literature is the study of the human condition.” Then again, he also had a bed in his office, which was located in a dank corner of the library basement.

    • LOL! I like that quote about literature being about the human condition. Some people (paradoxically) don’t want to deal with the human condition. Really good books make you think. They even make you uncomfortable. I don’t read stupid books, but I do watch stupid movies. Sometimes you just need to believe that the good guy always wins. But it gets really old after a while, and then you want the human condition again!

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