Tracy Lee Karner

Who does and does not read literary fiction?

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.

Steven Petite, Huff Post

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”
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?

Photo via Visualhunt

17 thoughts on “Who does and does not read literary fiction?”

  1. Good one, Tracy. I think being an introvert as a kid sent me into literature. Whether that developed aspects of me is hard to prove, but I’m sure it did lead to loving sentences and writing. Reading and my own writing are now inextricable. I do believe literature can grow our empathy because that’s what great books are about, looking into another’s reality and understanding it.

    1. Thanks, Richard. I wonder whether reading isn’t usually an activity preferred by introverts. Most of the readers/writers I personally know would say they are introverts. And the Myers-Briggs INFJ temperament is that of “writer.”
      I suppose someone will do a study on that, someday. Meanwhile, I’m just going to keep reading and writing because they are not only inextricable, for me, (as for you, I imagine) those activities are inextricable with living well.

  2. What a provocative post!
    About the literary fiction/empathy conundrum: I saw empathy practiced in both of my childhood homes. Whether it’s in my DNA or conditioning in younger years, I find it easy to slip into others’ mocassins and imagine what they are feeling.
    Reading has become both an escape from an extension of my reality. I can’t imagine not have books on my night-stand. I read Dani Shapiro’s most recent memoir: Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage. Early on, she exclaims about an author she had discovered recently: Wendell Berry. So then I went to the library and found his books of poetry and literary fiction. A farmer himself, he has created a fictional rural community called Port William in Kentucky, in which he extolls love, faithfulness and integrity. Right now I’m reading Fidelity, Five Stories. (I’d class his writing with that of Donald Hall and May Sarton.) One book leads to another: That’s how I roll.
    Oh, I believe cooking fuelsl your writing too. Have you read Louise de Salvo’s Crazy in the Kitchen?
    So nice to read something literary again after being immersed in tedious family affairs for months on end. Thank you, Tracy!

    1. You have indeed had a long bout of tedious affairs, Marian. I hope things will return to normal soon. Once again, your suggestions are sending me to my Goodreads account to add books. I haven’t read Louise de Salvo, and am looking forward to it, as well as to Dani’s memoir.
      Possibly because I was such a poetry geek, I discovered Wendell Berry a while ago. I love his Port Williams books! His aesthetic has greatly shaped my life choices. Thank you for reminding me of an author I want to revisit. A truly noble soul! I like spending time with authors I’d like to invite for dinner, people I’d want my grandchildren to meet.
      People like you! Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Wow! You put so much time and effort and dare I say, PASSION, into this post. I enjoyed every word. I feel a bit differently from the statistical summaries of some of the researchers, but I found their distinctions fascinating. First of all, lots of ‘genre’ literature does include in-depth characterization. Some contemporary mysteries are written beautifully and are character-driven (one of my best examples is Louise Penney’s mysteries). And dare I say, I have read many novels deemed ‘women’s fiction’ that delve into the depth of a character. I have a difficult time distinguishing these days between literary and ‘genre’ fiction – I think it’s blurring. That said, I read both (as described in New York Times book review, etc.) And I love both. Now, on to empathy. I think reading literature – popular or ‘literary’ – can help us gain empathy. But I also think the way we’re raised makes a difference. A friend of mine wrote the book entitled MOSES OF ROVNO, in which he follows the true story of a German who saved the lives of many Jews. That German was taught by his parents, “Put yourself in his/her shoes” when he was a child. If only more parents did that as they raise their children!

    1. Thank you for noticing the passion. My blog has moved through a number of identities and purposes, and I’ve finally figured out why I will continue to blog and for what purpose–namely for the pure joy of literature. My joy quest is something quite different from the notion that literature makes me “happy.” Literature is an ongoing conversation (between writers, readers, and me) that contributes to making my life more meaningful, delightful, creative, and beautiful. I’m so very glad you enjoyed it.
      I absolutely agree with you that more and more genre fiction is character-driven and expertly crafted. And I, too, have some quibbles with the “science” that researches the effects of literature on readers, and measure empathy. I think the arts and humanities are better tools of investigation when we get into all of that complex stuff about ethics, morality, human nature, notions of good and evil. I think Steven Petite is spot-on when he makes the distinction between genre and literary fiction not one of quality of writing/writer, but rather on the kind of experience the reader is seeking–the reason/purpose for writing and reading. For entertainment/escape? Or, as Marc Nieson says (in an interview I just found a few minutes ago) “to honestly recognize our mortal selves in others.”
      You and Marian have both talked about the quality of our childhood experiences, the lessons we’re taught young in life, as having an important influence on whether or not we develop empathy, and I believe that is also, true. Yes. If only more parents taught their children to consider what the other person feels.

      1. Thank you for ‘listening’ and for this dialogue. So much fun. I miss this – I earned a Masters in English Literature many many years ago and loved the hard work of it because of these kinds of intense conversations. Fun. Now, I’m off to read. The Sandcastle Girls right now – (Chris Bohjalian). I believe his work is considered ‘literary fiction.’ 🙂

  4. I’ve always been introspective, and I think sympathetic and empathetic. I’ve always read, and I read all types of fiction and nonfiction. I think of nonfiction as my work reading–unless it’s a cookbook–and fiction, whether literary or genre, is my pleasure reading. I also think that there is some crossover between literary and genre. I’m sure that I’ve learned new ideas and gained perspective about many things because of all the reading I’ve done–but I don’t think one can conclude that reading causes empathy. I think of all the people in the world who have never had a chance to learn to read, and certainly there are some caring, empathetic people among them.
    (Then again, I look at our president, who I am certain does not read.)

    1. Thank you! I agree! I think the conclusion that reading causes empathy has to be erroneous. It’s one of my quibbles with social science research–leaping so quickly to determining cause and effect when what we’re really observing is more complex, a relationship. I also think that the delineation of everything into supposedly tidy categories is useful for making distinctions, but is not an accurate representation of reality. It’s all interrelated, isn’t it? Or, as Marc Nieson says (in the interview I just found a short while ago) “I think identity — like intimacy, and honesty for that matter — is about bridging distances. And, by extension, presumed differences, sides. We’re all on the same spectrum, after all, of a single species, a single globe. I’d say the same with regard to isolating genres. Memoirs are just one form of word delivery. It’s all inquiry, expression, a search to connect.”
      Thank you for commenting, Merril. I’m so glad to have met you. I don’t randomly pop around racking up blogs I follow so that people will follow mine, but I’m following yours! I think we have much in common, and I’m interested in connecting with readers & writers who share my sensibility about what matters, and what doesn’t.

  5. Such an interesting post and the background research that goes with it. It sounds like a kind of chicken and egg conundrum. I know that I’ve been attracted to literary fiction for a long time before I even knew that it had a name, I remember how easy it was to find my grandmothers favourite books in the library because they had a red dot (mystery) but there was no coloured dot for what I liked.
    I think I have had the empathy gene in me for a long time, I also remember always feeling inspired by those who not only had it, but managed to make others feel listened to and heard, I didn’t grow up with a lot of that around me and I even used to read books like “How Not to Become Like Your Mother” graduating eventually on to reading books by the Dalai Lama about how to actually practice compassion.
    So while I don’t think literature lead me to that kind of reading, alongside those philosophical interests, I also loved and still love to read literary fiction and also translated fiction – because literary fiction from the anglo saxon world is also limiting in terms of its ability to understand perspectives from elsewhere and from other countries, so perhaps it could also be said that my interest in cross cultural fiction and translated works is also derived that characteristic of empathy. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

  6. This is a wonderful article. I would agree from personal experience that empathy grows from literary fiction but perhaps those with higher emotional intelligence are drawn to it because of the exploration of characters’ motivations.

  7. By all means, reading books – of all kinds but particularly literary fiction – stretches my empathy muscles. I’m a wide-ranging reader who likes the occasional ‘candy-read,’ but my preference is a sink-your-teeth-into-life-up-to-your-armpits novel that introduces me to a life that may border on, but is definitely not my own.
    For me – as I suspect is true for most – a day in my life surrounds me with people who make choices similar to my own. I see people who like the water when I go to my Y. I see people who like breakfast out when I go to my favorite diner. And back in the days when I went to an office instead of chaining myself to my computer here at home, I saw people who invested their working life into the same organization, values, and passions as mine.
    But when I open a book, those people are often not like me at all! They enjoy far more – or less – privilege than I. They have passions I can recognize but wouldn’t be likely to act on. They experience joys and loss I may or may not have experienced. They open my mind to new possibilities, viewpoints, and ways to look at the world. They exercise my ability to empathize with people who live closer than I knew – and not only in the pages of a book.
    Aren’t empathy and imagination closely linked?

Leave a Reply to Tracy Lee Karner Cancel Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *