Reading is, by nature, a solitary activity, but does perusing serious fiction make you better at interacting with other people?
A new study published in the journal “Science” and conducted by researchers at New York’s New School for Social Research found that those who read what the researchers defined as “literary fiction” did better on exams that tested skills such as emotional intelligence and empathy. Those who read literary fiction such as titles by Anton Chekhov or Jesmyn Ward did better on these tests than those who picked up a book that fit into the popular fiction category or nonfiction.
The researchers, Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd, believe this is because “features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances.”
“Through the use of … stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers,” they wrote. “Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration.”
For the literary fiction category, novels including the National Book Award finalists from recent years and those which received the PEN/O. Henry Prize for short fiction were used on test subjects. Popular fiction selections came from a collection of recently released popular titles or books that are currently Amazon bestsellers, while Smithsonian Magazine was the source of nonfiction reading selections.
Test subjects ranging from 18 to 75 years old were used.
“This is why I love science,” Erdrich said. “[The researchers] found a way to prove true the intangible benefits of literary fiction…. Thank God the research didn’t find that novels increased tooth decay or blocked up your arteries.”
Ward said in an interview with NPR that she was also very excited by the findings.
“If that's true, then that's exactly what I want to happen when I write,” she said. “Part of the reason that I write about what I write about is that the people I grew up with, poor people and black people, are underrepresented in fiction. So it's amazing to me that a study like this shows that people are seeing these characters and can empathize with them and sympathize with them. It makes me feel like what I'm trying to do is working.”