Reading literature in education may be on the way out. It is one of the many previous foundational skills that have been thrown aside to find a place for all the additional science, math and technology that a “competitive” county needs in this world’s economy. In a recent discussion with English teachers I found many who thought there was no problem with exposing secondary students to works written only in the last fifty years or less. Some preferred an even more recent time frame and choose nonfiction or new popular novels to give students books that they found easier to read. They were willing to give students assignments that didn’t require analysis because the author basically told the story.
What do we have to lose when we no longer require students to read works that are not easily read but have withstood the test of time? Perhaps we will be robbing students of a chance to increase empathy and social skills. Being able to grasp the mental state of other people is valuable for functioning in society. Researchers and scientists do not know a lot about what contributes to this skill. However, two recent studies show that reading fiction, and in particular literary fiction, increases it.
A study by Mar and Oatley (2010) from York University found that individual who choose to read fiction often were more able to empathize with others and understand the world from their perspective. They made no division between literature and popular fiction. A more recent study by Kidd and Castano (2013) indicates that reading literary fiction at least temporarily increase people’s ability to understand that others have differing beliefs, values, goals and desires.
Kidd and Castano , researchers from the New School for Social Research, conducted experiments to test participant’s accuracy in identifying the emotions of others after they had been reading popular fiction, non-fiction, literary texts or nothing at all. They found those that had read literary texts were able to accurately identify the emotions than those who had been reading popular fiction or non-fiction.
So what exactly is the difference between popular fiction and literature?
According to the literary theory put forward by Roland Barthe fictional text is divided into two types. He describes “readerly” text as those in which the reader is mostly passive, and does not have to make much effort to receiving the text. This type of text is largely entertaining and the author tells you what you are experiencing. On the other hand “writerly” text require that the reader engage with the writer. This text requires greater effort to read and comprehend the codes of meaning.
You open a book of what we call popular fiction and you know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy.
We tend to see ‘readerly’ more in genre fiction like adventure, romance and thrillers, where the author dictates your experience as a reader. Literary [writerly] fiction lets you go into a new environment and you have to find your own way.
David Comer Kidd
Of course there is not a rigid line of demarcation between the two. However, literature is usually marked by an in depth focus on characters inner feelings and thoughts. Also, characters tend not to remain static so the reader has to make a effort, and construct their own frame of reference to understand the character. This is work that the students may not want to do, but it does have its benefit.
 Paul, A. M. “Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer” Time. June 03, 2013
 Kidd, D.C. and Emanuele C., “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” Science 18 October 2013 Vol. 342 no. 6156 pp. 377-380, Published Online October 3 2013
 Barthe, R. The Pleasure of the Text. Straus and Giroux, Inc. Originally published in French as Le Plaisir du texte 1973 by Editions du Seuil, Paris
 Greenfieldboyce, N. “Want To Read Others’ Thoughts? Try Reading Literary Fiction” NPR. October 04, 2013 4:24 PM ET
 Bury, L. “Reading literary fiction improves empathy, study finds” The Guardian. Tuesday 8 October 2013 03.00 EDT
Good post. I believe complex character driven literature (i.e. where the characters are as complex as ‘real people’ always are, is an incredibly valuable place to learn about oneself and others; developing empathy, as you suggest. ‘In real’ we are actively part of the encounters going on in our environment, and easily get caught up in the speed of what is going on – and of course our reactions further feed into ‘what is going on’. By contrast, good writing catapults the reader inside the character – and if the writer is emotionally sophisticated, inside ALL the characters, but our own reactions do not change the outcome of the story – that remains static, which means the only dynamic is the reader, and so the reader is always forced to examine themselves in some way. Taking this further, discussing literature really exposes the subjective responses, so, once again, the reader has to make imaginative journeys into the shoes of other readers, as well as the shoes of the characters within the text.
The best books (at least in human terms, I think) are the ones which move us out of our comfortable viewpoint. Its not about ‘do you like or not like this character’ – it’s being forced to engage with them. Books can give the subjective reader at the same time an objective view of themselves as they surrender (or not) to what the writer is evoking
Thanks for your comment. I find books that deal with character development are not the easiest to read, but in the end are the most fulfilling.
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