If you want to understand how people around you are feeling, put down that hard-boiled crime novel and pick up some Jane Austen or Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
New research out this month finds that reading literary fiction, instead of popular or commercial fiction, better equips people to sense and understand others’ mental states.
In a series of experiments, participants read a short passage and then completed several tasks, including one in which they were asked to identify people’s facial expressions in photos. The findings are preliminary, the authors say, but show that when subjects read excerpts from literary works, their performance temporarily improved, more than when they read popular, more commercial fiction.
The effect wasn’t limited to more well-read subjects either, say the researchers, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano of the psychology department of The New School for Social Research in New York.
“The effect was the same,” even for not particularly well-read subjects, Kidd says. “If they pick up a work of literary fiction and read it, they will be more sensitive to other people’s subjective states.”
Castano says that’s because literary novelists tend to make readers work harder to understand characters.
“The writer doesn’t give you a coherent, complete, easily understandable ‘stereotype’ account of that person – quite the opposite,” he says.
A book such as Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment “gives you contradictory information. It shows the person behaving in ways that are not easily interpretable, or at least interpretable in many different ways. By doing so, and not giving you the whole picture, it forces you as a reader to contribute your own interpretations, to reconstruct the mind of the character.”
Reading literary fiction asks readers not only to challenge their view of the world but to assume the role of writer in some cases, filling in gaps and searching for “meanings among a spectrum of possible meanings,” Kidd and Castano write.
By contrast, popular fiction often lays out characters in a more complete, straightforward way, leaving little doubt, for instance, that a hard-boiled detective is a tough guy with a heart of gold.
They say the study, appearing in the journal Science, suggests that literary fiction “may change how, not just what, people think about others.”
Emma Snyder, executive director of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, a Washington-based education group annually honors the best American literary novel, says the findings will resonate with fiction writers and teachers.
“It’s something that teachers certainly speak about as being this intuitive truth that we all feel and know, but that is very difficult to quantify,” she says.
Kidd and Castano remain cautious about the findings, saying more research is needed. But they note that new Common Core learning standards being introduced in schools nationwide urge educators to focus as much on nonfiction as on fiction in English classes. They hope the new findings “become part of those public debates,” Kidd says.
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