In essence, the best Genre Fiction contains great writing, with the goal of telling a captivating story to escape from reality. Literary Fiction is comprised of the heart and soul of a writer’s being, and is experienced as an emotional journey through the symphony of words, leading to a stronger grasp of the universe and of ourselves.
A survey by the National Endowment for the Arts reports less than 50% of Americans have read at least one novel, play or poem within the past 12 months. So, American readers of fiction are a minority. And according to a Market Watch report, younger people and women are more likely than older people and men to read fiction. Publishing houses, book sellers and writers look at this information in terms of market share, potential sales and profitability. But this isn’t about money. It isn’t even about literature. It’s about politics. I’ll explain why, later.
Readers choose their fiction in search of two different kinds of experience. Genre fiction promises an escape from reality; literary fiction, according to Steven Petite, deepens our understanding of reality and leads “to a stronger grasp of the universe and of ourselves.”
Book sellers and people who talk about books often call genre fiction popular. The implication is that literary fiction is unpopular.
What the statistics actually reveal is that it is unpopular for Americans to examine the difficult truth about the universe and ourselves. It’s not popular to actively seek insight into why and how to live our best, most meaningful life.
I won’t yet comment on what I think this implies about political power, propaganda, and policies. Instead, I will complicate my little essay with another research finding. David Kidd and Emanuele Caetano observed fiction readers and measured which of them are, or are not, likely to show empathy–to care about people outside the group with which they self-identify according to sex, race, gender, nationality, class, political party, religion, or affinity (cat-people, vegans, quilters, hikers, chess players, rock hounds, storm chasers, Packer’s fans…) Kidd and Caetano had previously discovered that readers of fiction develop a greater capacity for empathy than nonreaders. So then they compared readers who choose to read only genre fiction with readers who choose to read literary fiction in their daily lives, by measuring participants’ lifetime exposure to literary fiction.
Here’s a quote from a HuffPost article about their findings (social science mumbo-jumbo alert):“Results indicate that exposure to literary but not genre fiction positively predicts performance on a test of theory of mind, even when accounting for demographic variables including age, gender, educational attainment, undergraduate major … and self-reported empathy,” they write in the paper, Different Stories: How Levels of Familiarity With Literary and Genre Fiction Relate to Mentalising. “We propose that these findings emerge because the implied (rather than explicit) socio-cognitive complexity, or roundness of characters, in literary fiction prompts readers to make, adjust, and consider multiple interpretations of characters’ mental states.”
Translation: People who regularly read literary fiction are “better at inferring others’ feeling, a faculty known as theory of mind.” In other words, they have higher capacity for empathy. People who regularly read genre fiction and people who read no fiction are less skilled at understanding others’ feelings. Why? Because literary fiction has complex characters (modeled on the way humans really are and behave) and this “prompts readers” to examine and reexamine their own prejudices, biases and delusions.
Whether people read literary fiction (and literary memoir) because of the way their minds work, or whether their minds work the way they do because they are readers of literature, is unclear. But we do know there is this relationship. Readers of literature are likely to believe, “Regardless of how rich, poor, black, white, red, blue, intelligent, artistic, scientific, mystic, thin, fat, fast, immobile, male or female you are, you are like me. Both of us are human.”
I’m a lifelong reader of literary fiction. There is a temptation to feel smug. There’s an urge to look for a quiz so I can post my results on FaceBook: “Almost nobody can score a 6 or better but I just scored 10 out of 10 quiz on “Eminently Superior Human” at patyourselfontheback.com”
But I don’t actually believe I am superior. I don’t believe I worked to develop my empathy. It’s more like I lucked into it, the way some people luck into a rich family or a beautiful face. I do, however, believe in the same way I believe poverty is bad for individuals and society, that narcissism (the opposite of empathy) is also bad for individuals and society.
Here’s where this gets to be about politics. It appears to me that America suffers from an empathy problem. In a recent issue of The Nation, Katha Pollit writes, “Empathy and respect are…about supporting policies that make people’s lives better, whether they share your values, or your tastes, or not.”
Wouldn’t it be delightful if America’s empathy problem could be solved by engaging more readers in literary fiction? (If only it were that easy!)
I would like your help in thinking about where empathy comes from. I’m assuming, because you’re still with me, that you’re one of precious few who enters heart-and-soul into the emotional journey of being alive and human, which, through grappling with truth leads “to a stronger grasp of the universe and of ourselves.”
Do you think you developed empathy through literature, or were you attracted to literature because you naturally view people through the lens of empathy? And if you are empathetic to all humans, and don’t read literature, to what do think is the source of your empathy?
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