Reading Literary Fiction: Makes You a More Empathetic Person?
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I almost skipped this one because there seems to have been a flood of "follow up" articles based upon recent findings by Canadian scholars that reading literary fiction makes us more empathetic and that being more empathetic is good. And, I figured, I got it. Liked the attention it drew to literary reading, particularly in times when the focus seems to be "If it ain't got pragmatic value it ain't got value."
It's a concern I've wrestled with being seriously torn between being a proponent of assessing the quality of effort by both educators and educatees. Yet, knowing that collecting the "data" to drive that process is much easier to do in the "there is a right answer/there is a wrong answer" sides of the curriculum than it is do do in "the there are important questions worth exploring and sometimes there just isn't a universal right or wrong answer" side of the curriculum.
After awhile the follow-up articles became pretty much little more than articles re-reporting the findings of those Candadian scholars and I found fewer and fewer "building upon the findings" articles.
But, in my daily scanning for scoopable articles my attention was grabbed by the question mark in the title of this article. Perhaps, someone was offering a counterpoint.
Spoiler and then a spoiler-spoiler...
The Spoiler? The author offers confirmation not counterpoint to the idea that literary reading makes us more empathetic. This was not disappointing in that I certainly believe that literary reading broadens our understanding of those beyond our own skins with whom we share our world.
The author makes an interesting distinction between literary fiction and popular fiction in regards to their impact on the development of empathy. It is not a surprising distinction. Great literature is great because it does what it does better than its oft maligned "ugly duckling" mass-appeal kin.
I find myself a bit on the fence about the distinctions drawn. In suggesting that literary fiction is superior, the author suggests...
The results are in accordance with what literary criticism has found concerning the two genres. While popular fiction tends to focus on plot development and taking readers on a roller-coaster ride of emotions, literary fiction focuses more on the psychology of complex characters and their relationships._______________ I have no objection to this analysis. Literary fiction has depth that popular fiction often skates over. Yet, at the same time, popular fiction relies upon characters, admittedly often cartoonish than realistic, whose motives and actions and conflicts and attempts to address those conflicts must be at the very least familiar to readers as having some relationship to the motives and actions and conflicts and attempts to address those conflicts they are aware of in the "real world." The author's distinction between the two levels of literature is concise and in my mind valid. Quoting psychologist David Kidd co-author of one study supporting the idea that literary reading does improve empathy...
“What great writers do is turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the mind of others,” said Kidd.
And the author's quite valid recognition is that...
His (Kidd's) conclusions echo those of other literary critics who believe that genre fiction such as adventure, romance and thrillers dictate an experience to the reader, while literary fiction prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ intentions, motivations, and introspective dialogues.
Guilty as charged I suppose. That is if the intent is to convict popular fiction as being guilty of some form of intellectual neglect.
But, perhaps convicting the pretty good of not being great does a disservice to the pretty good. Perhaps we should support the pretty good in its ability to reach a greater proportion of the general populace than the great reaches.
This is not to say that there aren't degrees of good that aren't "pretty good," but perhaps "not good, in spite of their popularity." There is CRAP out there. Though far be it from me to attempt to define CRAP in such a way that we can all agree upon what is and what isn't CRAP.
I like to compare valuable fiction to that wonderful realization that putting an orange-flavored coating on children's aspirin serves an incredibly valuable purpose in spite of its complete lack of medicinal value. As Voltaire used edgy humor, sexual references, and exaggerated humanity's vicioucness and gullibility to the absurd, ALL fiction uses some sort of candy coating to entice us to "take the medicine."
An old reference to this effect was that "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" sells.
Like it or not, we've got to "sell" great literature, but we ought not bemoan the fact that some pretty darned good literature does a better job of selling to the masses. Readers of pretty good popular fiction may be getting a weaker dose of the medicine, but at least they're taking the medicine with some regularity.
Though I have some definite opinions on the matter, I'll leave it to others to attempt to distinguish the great and the pretty good fiction from the fiction that may be "dangerous to one's intellectual and ethical health."
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