DEBORAH CROMBIE: A front page story in last week's New
York Times quotes a just published study in the journal Science. The research, conducted by social psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York City, found that subjects who read "literary fiction," as opposed to "popular fiction" or nonfiction, performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence, skills that one would expect to give the subject an advantage in social relationships.
Among the "literary" material were excerpts from novels by Don DeLillo and Wendell Berry; "popular" works included Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, a Rosamund Pilcher novel and a Robert Heinlein story.
The authors of the study theorize that "literary" novels concentrate on the characters' self-examination rather than plot, and that in popular plot-driven fiction characters are interchangeable and stereotyped.
Well, hmm. Interesting. But the more I thought about this, the more uncomfortable I began to feel. This seems enormously subjective--where exactly do you draw the line between "popular" fiction and "literary" fiction? They apparently chose prize-winning novels for the "literary" material. The "popular" or "potboiler" fiction choices seem entirely random.
Charles Dickens's novels, for instance, now considered literary, were the "potboilers" of his day. Would Shakespeare have been consigned to the popular heap? Shakespeare and Dickens were certainly purveyors of plot.
While I'm not surprised that reading well-written fiction increased the test subjects' emotional intelligence and empathy, I am surprised that, according to the study, the readers of "popular" fiction did no better than subjects who had read nothing at all.
Hmm. Surely there is a gradient here?
What do you think, dear REDS and readers? Where exactly would you draw the line between literary and popular fiction? And do you think that readers of popular fiction have no more empathy than those who read nothing at all?