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Contentious Study: Literary Fiction Aids Emotional Recognition

Reading a good book often feels like getting lost in someone else’s thoughts. Their words bounce around your head, and their imagination colors your own. It’s hard to imagine that such a connection wouldn’t promote empathy; nothing puts you in someone else’s shoes quite like seeing the world through their eyes. However, a recent study done by NYC’s New School found that not all books are as effective in developing one’s ability to understand emotion.

According to the study, literary fiction (as opposed to genre fiction) is exactly what we need to become better more sensitive people. There’s a lot of disagreement surrounding these findings, as genre authors refute the research methods and call out the distinction between literary and genre fiction as arbitrary. The question of literature as a tool for humanization is definitely a worthwhile exploration.  The digital age has revolutionized how we interact with the people around us, and it’s more important than ever that we develop the ability to connect and empathize.

David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, researchers at the New School for Social Research, were interested in backing up findings from a similar study on the effects of litereary and genre fiction on emotional recognition conducted three years ago.

The researchers reached out to 2,000 subjects to participate in the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test”. The subjects watched actors’ eyes and were asked to select one of four words that best described the actor’s expressed emotion. After the exam the subjects were presented with a list of 65 authors including both literary (Salman Rushdie, George Orwell) and genre (Tom Clancy, Stephen King) fiction writers. They were asked to select which names they recognize. 

The pattern revealed by the study is that those who recognized more literary authors scored better on the emotional recognition exam. Greater recognition of literary fiction authors was taken by the researchers to mean greater exposure to literary fiction. Hence, literary fiction is conducive to better emotional recognition.

I’m no scientist, but reading over the methods used, I can’t help but feel that there isn’t enough distinction between correlation and causation, or a real enough division between literary and genre fiction to draw serious conclusions from the study. My doubts are backed up by other, more qualified, critics.

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Mark Liberman, a renowned linguist out of the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in his blog that it was downright irresponsible to have published such shoddy research in a renowned science journal. His criticisms are thorough, and focus on the bias inherent in those conducting the study, the lack of scientific specificity in the methods, and the broad over generalizations made in the conclusions.

Val McDermid, a scottish crime-novelist, wrote an op-ed for The Gaurdian in opposition of the study. She claims to have taken the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test”, on which she scored 33 out of 36, way above average. She said the following of her high score:

It’s not because I’m totally immersed in literary fiction and don’t waste my brain on genre. There are two reasons. One is that I’ve spent a lifetime in close observation of people so I can write convincing characters. The second is that I’ve done a lot of quizzes over the years and I recognise the mechanics of a multiple choice that gives you four options, three of which are broadly similar and one of which is different. Whenever I was uncertain of the answer, I went down that route, and I hit the bullseye every time.

Aside from the flaws in the quiz structure, she points out how dated the idea of their being a clear distinction between literary and genre works, and how skewed the selection of authors is on both sides of the spectrum.

To take the lowest common denominator genre fiction and set it against the very best of literary fiction is an entirely pointless opposition.

Great art helps to humanize, and great art takes on many forms. Perhaps for the next round of studies the focus should shift from what books make us better, to how it is books make us better. As a writer, I’d love to know how to help an audience feel more connected to the people around them. As McDermid says:

Good books make us care. It really doesn’t matter whether they include murderers, aliens, philosophers or kings.

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