A Classic Error

What do we have to lose when we consume only recent novels that bring wealth and prestige to the authors? As authors, we may think that is the one way to learn the path to success as a writer. The works of prior centuries do not seem applicable to current audiences.  Also, they are a lot harder to read, as the majority of current best sellers are written around a six-grade reading level. So what do we lose by not reading older works that have withstood the test of time?

Perhaps we are robbing ourselves of the chance to increase understanding other people. Being able to grasp the mental state of others is valuable for functioning in society. Researchers and scientists are eager to learn more about what contributes to this skill. Surprisingly, two recent studies show that reading literary fiction increases these abilities.

Kidd and Castano, researchers from the New School for Social Research (2013) discovered that reading literary fiction increase people’s ability to understand that others have differing beliefs, values, goals and desires. Individuals who choose to read this kind of fiction were often more able to understand the world from other’s perspectives. These researchers conducted experiments to test participant’s accuracy in identifying the emotions of others after they had been reading popular fiction, nonfiction, literary texts or nothing at all. They found those that had read literary texts were able to more accurately identify the emotions than those who had been reading popular fiction or nonfiction.

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 that in which the reader is mostly passive, and does not have to make much effort to understand the text. This type of text is largely entertaining and the author tells you what you are experiencing. On the other hand “writerly” text requires the reader to engage with the writer. This text means are greater effort is necessary to read and comprehend the 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.

Emanuele Castano

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 between popular fiction and literature. 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 an effort, and construct their own frame of reference to understand them. This is work that we may not want to do all of the time, but we should be willing to make this effort more often if we also want to produce writing that helps people understand the feelings of others and share their own deepest desire for humanity.

[1] 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
[2] 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
[3] Greenfieldboyce, N. “Want To Read Others’ Thoughts? Try Reading Literary Fiction” NPR. October 04, 2013 4:24 PM ET
[4] Bury, L.  “Reading literary fiction improves empathy, study finds”  The Guardian. Tuesday 8 October 2013 03.00 EDT
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