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#ScienceSpeaks Literary Readers Understand Emotions Better Than Genre Readers

What kind of fiction do you read – genre fiction or literary fiction? Do you read books by author liks Danielle Steel, Tom Clancy, and Clive Cussler? Or writers like Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, and Kazuo Ishiguro?

There are many people who malign genre fiction, saying it’s purely formulaic, that focuses on the plot rather than on the characters. Whether or not this accusation is true, a new study may add more fuel to this oft-indulged in debate. The study, which was published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, found that literary fiction readers are better able to understand emotions of people around them, than those who read genre/commercial fiction.

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David Kidd and Emanuele Castano, two academics from the New School for Social Research in New York, enlisted more than 1,000 participants for this study. The participants were put through the ‘author recognition test,’ where they were asked to identify writers from a list, which was an exercise to gauge their exposure to fiction. The list included both authors and non-authors, and had the likes Cussler, Clancy, and Steel, considered genre writers, clubbed with Morrison, Rushdie, and Ishiguro, who are seen as literary writers.

The study participants were then asked to do the ‘reading the mind in the eyes’ test, wherein they were asked to select which of the four emotion terms most closely captures the expression of a person in a picture. The academics reveal that people who recognized more literary fiction authors were better at understanding others’ emotions, a faculty that is know as theory of mind.

In the paper, the academics write, that genre fiction is defined by a particular topic and reliance on formulaic plots, while literary fiction is defined by character development than focusing on the plot or a particular theme.

Suggested read: People who swear are more articulate than those who don’t, says Science

In the paper, titled, Different Stories: How Levels of Familiarity With Literary and Genre Fiction Related to Mentalising, they write,

“Results indicate that exposure to literary but not genre fiction positively predicts performance on a test of theory of mind, even when accounting for demographic variables including age, gender, educational attainment, undergraduate major… and self-reported empathy.”

Further, they write,

“We propose that these findings emerge because the implied (rather than explicit) socio-cognitive complexity, or roundness of characters, in literary fiction prompts readers to make, adjust, and consider multiple interpretations of characters’ mental states.”

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The same academics had, in a previous study, conclude that those who read literary fiction were able to recognize emotions in others better than those who read genre fiction. For this older study, they gave participants extracts from literary or genre novels to read, and were then analyzed on their ability to understand emotions in others. So in their latest research, Castano and Kidd set out to study the emotion-recognition response of those who read either genre or literary fiction in their everyday lives.

The researchers were quick to say that they didn’t mean that literary fiction has more value than genre fiction. Kidd said,

“This is not to say that reading popular genre fiction cannot be enjoyable or beneficial for other reasons – we suspect it is. Nor does the present evidence point towards a clear and consistent distinction between literary and popular genre fiction. Instead, it suggests that the broad distinction between relatively complex literary and relatively formulaic genre fiction can help us better understand how engaging with fiction affects how we think.”

The hope that the academics have from this study is that there will be implications for both the study and teaching of literature, as well as to help improve the theory of mind in people who are lacking in it.

But that doesn’t give literary readers a free-for-all to rub it in the faces of genre readers, no? However, since they are too evolved, they will refrain themselves from doing so! 😉

Featured image source: Google, copyright-free image under Creative Commons License

Article Name
Literary Readers Understand Emotions Better Than Genre Readers, Says Science
Do you want to understand emotions of those around you? Then you may want to start reading literary fiction!
Chaitra Ramalingegowda

Chaitra Ramalingegowda

I fell in love with storytelling long before I knew what it was. Love well written stories, writing with passion, baking lip-smacking-finger-licking chocolate cakes, engaging movies, and home-cooked food. A true work-in-progress and a believer in the idiom 'all those who wander are not lost'. Twitter: @ChaitraRlg