Fiction Advocate of the Day

FA Science Mag Cover

It’s science — the magazine, and the method.

Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd from the New School for Social Research published a study in this month’s Science magazine showing the emotional-intuitive benefits of reading literary fiction. According to the New York Times, the study revealed that:

after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.

In other words, science has proven David Foster Wallace’s theory that “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being.” Looking at more specific scenarios, the Times suggests that literary fiction may have some utility if read right before a job interview or a first date. Thanks to science, we now have a clear explanation of why people who read so many books all the time thrive in those situation, and also tend to be very socially popular and well liked. Or, wait…

FA ghostbusters_library1

The researchers at work on their study (dramatization).

At any rate, the study confirms what most readers already know:

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.

Ironically, this seemingly obvious conclusion requires the support of data to convince those who don’t already understand it intuitively.

The trick only seems to work with literary fiction. According to one of the researchers, when reading popular fiction “the author is in control, and the reader has a more passive role,” which sounds familiar.

In a further irony, the study was conducted using Amazon.com, which will promote increased readership of literary fiction so long as its cold, dead, inhuman algorithms compute that it will make money or at least put real life bookstores out of business by doing so.

UPDATE: More in-depth coverage of the study can be found here.

– Michael Moats

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