Thursday, October 10, 2013

Can Dickens Get you a Date?

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?


  1. I'd love to see the study in more detail, but in th meantime, I'd say baloney! Most of us read for character in popular fiction too...reading is wonderful, no matter what kind

  2. This is about as believable as the Facebook story I just read which said eating sushi from anywhere in the Pacific Ocean could kill you because of Japanese radiation.

    Baloney News gets sliced up and put on everyone's sandwich these days. But darn if I have to eat it.

  3. I’m opting for the “it doesn’t matter what you read, it’s the fact that you read” school of thought and not accepting any arbitrary line of division between the types of fiction.

  4. I was just about to type, "A load of baloney," when I saw that Lucy and Austin both beat me to it!

    The "popular" fiction I love to read, including by all the authors on this blog, usually has very deeply drawn characters and beautifully written prose.

  5. Use of the category "emotional intelligence" proves that the research is seriously flawed. No, this is just one more example of somebody having to come up with something unique to research and publish and to produce something discordant enough to raise their visibility. I can't imagine the variables they would use in a multivariate analysis. Fantasy that masquerades as truth is dangerous fiction.

  6. Your last question—sorry I missed it, because it is brilliant and actually proves the point. Empathy has nothing to do with reading, which they don't really say as far as I know, but they are taking two unrelated items and trying to show they relate to something they don't actually name but I suspect is "intelligence" as most of us use the word. I'm going to read their write-up.

  7. Okay, I read it. They say that their results suggest a direct effect of reading literature on a person's empathy. They quantified their results by measuring the number of right answers people had on an assessment that demonstrated their ability to recognize what other people were feeling after reading samples from literature for a few minutes. If their conclusion were right, it would be possible to train people to feel. The research is flawed, because it is culture bound. People from different cultures often interpret these visual cues differently. In some cultures, not looking at someone in the eye, for example, is polite. In another culture not looking someone in the eye might be seen as discomfort, shyness, guilt, etc. I think what the researchers see in their results is a temporary effect caused by focus. The people who do not sign up for the studies are the ones we want to know about but never will.

  8. I was going to say what Joan said. The more people read the better of they are, in many ways.

    I'm pretty annoyed by "studies." Having been involved in many polls and surveys it's clear to me that results can be skewed (intentionally or not) and everyone can find a study to justified their own reasonings.

  9. A pox upon these so called experts.

    I defy anyone to read Page 1 of Gone Girl and tell me that it's not "literary." So ridiculous.

  10. Reine, thank you for your thoughtful, well-grounded comments on this faux scientific study. Your posts always add so much to these discussions.

    Not having read the study myself, I perhaps should not opine, but the design of the project sounds like provocation for the sake of provocation.

    And Debs, how smart to point out that Dickens and Shakespeare would have fallen on the dreaded "popular" side of the line. We are in good company, Reds.

  11. The people in the study read excerpts from a variety of sources? And that proves? Most people read a full variety of material, from "People" magazine at the doctor's office to "Buddenbrooks" back in school.
    I'm with the school of thought that says studies are just investigations, and media outlets try to simplify results.
    So glad to not have to actually worry about such stuff.

  12. Any study can be given a spin to "help" it fit a preconceived final diagnosis. Just exactly the way any good accountant can crunch numbers to manipulate a balance sheet.

    In other words.


    Just my opinion, of course.

  13. I did try to find the actual article in Science, rather than just reading the NYT write up, but couldn't find it as I don't have a registered account with the journal.

    Although the NYT write up suggested that reading Alice Munro might improve your social skills, the literally examples actually quoted as having been used by the study were both male. So I had to wonder if they had included any female writers in the literary category...


  14. PS: The winner of The Good Sister by Wendy Corsi Staub is Melody T!

    Melody, email me your mailing address at deb at deborahcrombie dot com and I'll pass it along to Wendy.


  15. Oh Deb, this is always a subject that makes my hackles rise. "When are you going to write a real novel?" We've all been asked that.

    And yet the best crime and mystery novels ARE among the best fiction being written today. If by literary you mean no plot, lots of introspective waffle, self pity, self doubt and a conclusion that solves nothing alone on a beach in Maine, then I'm glad I write mystery. At least we have a structured novel with logical plot and satisfying conclusion.

  16. Nice to see a study that says reading is good for you. RIght?

    YOu see what they "mean," of course. And if two people read the same good book, voila, something to talk about. Like this study!

    SO now I'm thinking--am I more "changed" by reading say, Thomas Wolfe than Tom Wolfe? Fun to think about--but bring them both on!

  17. I had a little issue with the generic Heinlein, too. Starship Troopers might not increase your empathy and "emotional intelligence", but what about "Stranger in a Strange Land?"

    Louise Erdrich is quoted as saying she was relieved to find that her work was good for something.

    And what about the rest of us poor scribblers?

    Just call me grumpy...

  18. And I say, Hogwash!

    If we're going to be ridiculous, then I theorize that it's the opposite. Reading only high-brow, plotless novels is likely to instill a false sense of superiority and thus less empathy. :-)

  19. I guess there will always be "arbiters of taste." When I was a kid I loved to read Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, all that ilk. I had to go to the county library to check them out. The city library would not stock them because they were considered poor literature. I wonder if they preferred children read "good" literature or nothing at all!

  20. I am not sure about the results of the study, but I did like their definition of popular fiction and literary fiction. I have always been able to tell the two apart but didn't know how I did. Pop fiction is plot driven. Literary fiction is about the journey not the destination. The study was clear to state that one wasn't better than the other, and non-fiction readers had the same results as the pop fictions readers. I read all of it. And I play well in groups too. Ann in Rochester

  21. Debs, you can purchase access to the article online for $20. That gives you the right to make one copy for your own use but not to share. The other way to access it is through a library you belong to, probably an academic library for the journal, Science. Alternatively, on the Science web page, you can read the researchers' summary of their journal entry.

    They used a service on Amazon to find their study's participants, which does bring them out of the realm of college students. Their methods are not untypical. I just object to the usual things I object to in social science research.

  22. To the researchers' credit, they do not claim the empathy effect will last beyond a few minutes. That's an excellent reason, in itself, to question any real world application to their results. You won't be finding sociopaths being treated with bibliotherapy using their methods. Nor will you be finding other disorders treated with bibliotherapy.

    It would be a giant breakthrough, for example, if we could treat people with autism to help them to increase their ability in social-awareness skills using bibliotherapy, but this will not happen.

  23. I would also suspect an academic bias. People likely to read Don Dilillo (whom I find utterly incomprehensible) are also, I suspect, more likely to be able to articulate emotional gradients in an appropriately academic way.

    I found an interesting article in the NYT suggesting that an ability to use and understand sarcasm was a sign of empathic range! I was delighted, since my entire family is filled with snarky readers.

  24. It seems to me that earlier this year some researchers announced that people who prefer mysteries to "literary" fiction are less likely to experience dementia as they age, or that dementia develops more slowly in mystery readers than in readers of "literary" fiction. Personally, I find that much literary fiction depresses me. I don't read for the purpose of becoming depressed.

  25. I have to admit I had to read up on Don DeLillo and Wendel Berry, having never actually read either. Of the two, I think I'd be more inclined to read Berry.

    The truth is I don't read much that is designated as literary fiction--a shame for someone who grew up on Jane Austen and Dickens, Yeats, even, heaven help me, Ezra Pound. What literary fiction I do read tends to be British--I'm much more likely to read the Booker or Orange shortlist than the National Book Award Winner. I adore A.S. Byatt, who's certainly considered literary and who uses singingly beautiful language--but she can also tell a cracking good story.

    I like plot, damn it! And I don't like the idea that plot is something cast aside by good writers, or that it can't exist alongside good language and complex character development.

  26. My weigh-in... I adored Latin Lit so much in high school I majored in it in college. Now you can't get more literary than Virgil, Lucretius, and those big guys. But I never read " literary" fiction now - I'm for a good novel that I can sink my emotions in and feel good by the end! By the way, some of the best writing on the planet is by people who do mystery snd thriller and wd never be considered for one of them high falutin' uppity awards! Thelma in Manhattan

  27. Thank you, Brenda. That was very kind of you to say. I often write too much without realizing and then feel bad about it.