“Writers are often lonely obsessives, especially the literary ones. It’s nice to be told what we write is of social value. However, I would still write even if novels were useless.”
Mmmm: “lonely obsessives” — I’m not quite sure that I buy into this view of writers. Obsessive, yes — I think you have to be to keep writing and rewriting. But lonely? Well, it ain’t necessarily so. But I digress.
The real story here is that according to a new study recently published in the journal Science, after reading literary fiction (as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction), people performed better on tests rating empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence. Put another way, after reading Chekhov or Alice Munro, people seem to be more adept at decoding emotions when they encounter people in real-life social situations.
At least this is what social psychologists at the New School for Social Research learned after working with people ranging in age from 18 to 75. The idea that reading affects our social skills and emotional intelligence has been around for a while. But this study is fascinating on two fronts: first, it showed that just reading a literary passage for a few minutes measurably increased people’s ability to read social cues; and second, it demonstrated that reading literary fiction clearly influences and enhances people’s capacity for empathy and perceptiveness in social situations.
Why does literary fiction have more impact than popular fiction or nonfiction? Here’s what David Kidd, one of the study researchers thinks: In popular fiction, “really the author is in control, and the reader has a more passive role.” But in literary fiction, Dostoyevsky, for example, “there is no single, overarching authorial voice. Each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate in this dialectic as a reader, which is really something you have often to do in real life.” Dr. Emanuele Castano adds that “popular fiction seems to be more focused on the plot. Characters can be interchangeable and usually more stereotypical in the way they are described.”
In short, the richer your story and the more complex your character development, the more potential your story has for affecting people beyond the page. How lasting is the impact of reading Anton Chekhov or Alice Munro? No one knows. But it seems to me the real message here is a heartening one: Well-crafting characters and meaningful stories matter. That’s all we really need to know, isn’t it? So let’s write on!