It’s reported in The Guardian, so it must be true!
Reading serious (literary) fiction is better for you than reading popular fiction or non-fiction. Better, that is, in developing your capacity for empathy.
Formulaic thrillers or romance novels won’t do it for you, but stories by the likes of Anton Chekov or Don DeLillo or Tea Obreht can improve a reader’s understanding of other people’s emotions. That’s the main finding of an experimental study devised by psychologists at the New School of Social Research in New York and published recently in the prestigious international journal Science. Want to know more? Find out here.
This claim to have demonstrated scientifically the value of reading high-quality fiction may be new, but there’s nothing new, of course, about the belief that literature is seriously good for you. ‘The great instrument of moral good is the imagination’, declared English Romantic writer Percy Bysshe Shelley nearly two centuries ago in his rhapsodic essay A Defence of Poetry; ‘and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.’ By ‘poetry’ he meant all that we now call ‘literature.’
Since the heyday of Romanticism this concept of the imagination as an ethical instrument has become widely diffused through the teaching of English literature in schools and universities. The key to the value of literary experience, says Shelley, is is its capacity to enhance a reader’s empathy: ‘A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.’ To this end, ‘poetry…awakens and enlarges the mind’ (and Shelley insists that in this regard ‘the distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error’).
Is it true, then, that reading literary fiction can put us more feelingly in the shoes of other people than popular fiction or non-fiction can do? For me as a writer of literary fiction the belief may be self-serving, but I’m encouraged by the fact that some writers of non-fiction readily acknowledge that a novelist is able to go where they cannot. For example the Australian historian Cassandra Pybus has acknowledged what she calls ‘the limitations of history as a narrative form.’ She remarks:
Not even a master of the popular history genre, such as Simon Schama, can construct a past world as rich and satisfying as the parallel universe the novelist can imagine, nor create characters who are revealed to us in their most intimate and private thoughts. The historian remain tied to concrete evidence, which is patchy at best and never allows access to the workings of the human psyche.’
Does that settle the matter, then? What do you think?