First, the disclaimer.
Any reading is good reading. I believe this! Working in the library children’s room, I put it into action all the time. I’ll do whatever it takes to set the book a child wants into her eager hands.
I do this even when I’m itching to give her what I consider a better book. Hey, I’m no snob. I like a good, plotty page-turner, too. I like me a book with adorable photos of puppies, or horrifying close-ups of sharks.
Sometimes. The truth is, most of the books piled beside my bed and under my desk are character-driven fiction. Give me a compelling voice and I’ll follow it anywhere, not caring a whole lot what happens next. Give me characters who see the world in ways that startle me. Give me characters whose every thought and feeling is one I recognize. Real, breathing, complex characters, that’s what I want, yeah, that’s what I want!
So it was quietly gratifying to come across a recent study, reported in the journal “Science”, that claims “literary fiction” is where it’s at. Writers like Anton Chekhov and Alice Munro, Katherine Patterson and Lynne Rae Perkins, can increase a reader’s empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence. Could the world use more of these skills, I ask you?
Reporting on the study, the New York Times said, “The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.” In the best literary fiction, they go on, there’s no single view of the world. “Each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.” By contrast, these social psychologists said, “popular fiction seems to be more focused on the plot.”
Before I get too smug about my own tastes, let me cite another research study, done back in 2012, published in the journal NeuroImage and reported, again, in the New York Times. (Full disclosure: I am not a science geek. I’m a New York Times geek.) This research found the brain doesn’t make much distinction between encountering an experience for real, and reading a well-written account of it. This goes not just for the subtle and introspective, but for car chases, explosions, and kissing, too. The same synapses fire; the same neurological stuff occurs.
“Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that ‘runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.’ Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.”
It’s so nice to have one’s intuitions confirmed. Most lifelong readers sense how reading, that imagined walk in other shoes, increases compassion. Now we can point to studies and say, “Science proves it!” It’s also something to ponder, what with the Common Core favoring non-fiction over fiction, and colleges reporting a continuous drop in humanities majors. When I was in college, we talked about making our lives “relevant”. What could be more relevant than fostering empathy?
Louise Erdrich, who writes for both kids and adults, whose brilliant literary novels are strong on character and plot, and who, as a book store owner, cares a lot about people’s reading choices, deserves the last word here. “It’s nice to be told what we write is of social value,” she said. “However, I would still write even if novels were useless.”
The two studies cited here are:
Tricia writes what she likes to read: books with juicy characters. Her most recent middle grade novels are “Mo Wren, Lost and Found” and “What Happened on Fox Street”. The first book in her new middle grade series, “Not Even Cody”, will publish in 2015.