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Literary Fiction Under the Microscope

Since being published earlier this month, a study from the New School for Social Research in New York has sparked claims that literary fiction teaches its audience how to read minds, makes individuals better people and even improves a reader’s soul. This is a worrying prospect: how will the rest of the world survive when literary elitists can reach into peoples’ minds – like at the end of Chekhov’s The Seagull – and gauge how dearly the people wished to murder every last character? Hopefully, with their superior souls, these higher literary beings will bestow forgiveness upon those poor, misunderstanding mortals. But, in fact, the study itself made far less dramatic claims.

Social researchers Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd published a study in Science on October 3 that supports the positive cor­relation between reading literary fiction and performing well on theory of mind tests. Theory of mind details the ability to attribute mental states such as beliefs, intentions, knowledge and desires to oneself and to others.

The experiment required subjects to read ten to fifteen pages of ‘lit­erary’ fiction, popular fiction, nonfiction unrelated to people, or nothing at all. Literary excerpts featured American National Book Award winners or short stories by Anton Chekhov or Don DeLillo, whilst somehow navigating the distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, which is itself contentious and historically fickle. The popular works were selected from Amazon.com topsellers, and nonfiction pieces were taken from Smithso­nian Magazine and included ‘How the Potato Changed the World’.

Immediately after reading, the subjects completed five tests designed to measure theory of mind, such as Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET) where they were asked to match a strip of face to a correspond­ing complex emotion. On average, subjects who were exposed to either breeds of fiction scored better than those who read nonfiction or those who didn’t read at all. Between the breeds of fiction, subjects who read literary works scored higher than those who read popular works, yet the absolute differences were hardly dramatic. For example, on the RMET test, the literary group outperformed the popular group on average by about two questions out of 36.

The researchers proposed in their conclusion that “…by prompting readers to take an active writerly role to form representations of charac­ters’ subjective states, literary fiction recruits Theory of Mind”. Theory of Mind is an elusive and multifaceted social capacity, and the notion that reading literary texts can mold one’s social aptitude in such a way is un­doubtedly exciting. In commenting on the study, Louise Erdich, author of The Round House, a text used in one of the experiments, exclaimed “This is why I love science … [Because the researchers]found a way to prove true the intangible benefits of literary fiction.” Nonetheless, these results must be put into context. First, as scientists know, studies ‘suggest’ rather than ‘prove’, and second, the benefits of literary fiction have been made tangible in a host of other studies and essays.

In his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker explains how realistic fiction “… may expand readers’ circle of empathy by seducing them into thinking and feeling like people very different from themselves.” In the late 18th Century Humanitarian Revolution, one such reader – a retired military officer writing to Rousseau about his epistolary novel Julie, or the New Heloise – lamented, “Never have I wept such delicious tears. That reading created such a powerful effect on me that I believe I would have gladly died.” These comments seem especially telling when reminded that the grieving reader must have had little-to-nothing in common with the heroine, the sensitive and emotive Julie (despite the reader’s uncanny ability to write like a sensitive female).

Further to this example, Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych was once used in medical schools to teach students what it felt like to die, and many other studies have been conducted to examine and support the positive impact of long term reading on the capacity to empathise. The current study even supports these earlier studies in showing a larger disparity between theory of mind results separated along an ‘Author Rec­ognition Test’, designed to ascertain how much literary fiction the subject has read in his or her life prior to participating in the test. The Author Recognition Test assessed each reader’s previous exposure to fiction and it was a general finding in the study that a high recognition of authors led to a significantly better cognitive performance.

This leaves us to wonder: why is this particular indicator of short-term effects measured by this particular experiment apparently so groundbreaking? The reality is that its outcomes appear to confirm something many of us already know is true. Author Louise Erdich admits that although “… it’s nice to be told what we write is of social value … I would still write even if novels were useless.” And it’s safe to assume that readers of literary fiction would still read, no matter if reading such pieces was proven to have no effect whatsoever on their social or intellectual competence. Thus it seems absurd that this study is having such wide coverage. Those of us who write literary fiction know that our writing affects readers in one way or another, and those of us who read it feel the effect it has on us. So frankly, if you’re not a writer or a reader, then you’re missing out no matter what science can ‘prove’.

Amelia Moulis

The author Amelia Moulis

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