Literary literature makes you more literary. It’s a fact.

Another day, another study. Apparently, we now know it to be a  scientific fact that reading literary fiction, as opposed to non-literary fiction (please don’t ask me what those terms mean: they aren’t mine), improves your “people skills”. It helps you understand other people better, helps you relate to them more effectively, and so on. In short, it makes you a better person, and a good egg all round.

The report in the Telegraph reads:

Some volunteers were asked to read…

Whoa, hold on there! “Some volunteers”? That doesn’t say much for statistical significance. Well, let’s not worry about details: “some volunteers” it is.

Some volunteers were asked to read excerpts of recent award-winning novels or short stories, while others were asked to read either parts of popular fiction bestsellers or non-fiction pieces from Smithsonian Magazine.

The readers were then subjected to a series of five tests meant to gauge how well they could guess what a person was feeling, for instance by looking at a picture of a facial expression or answering questions about how a given character would act under certain circumstances.

The best scores were obtained by those who had just read excerpts of literary fiction, while those who read popular or non-fiction showed little improvement in their ability to judge the actor’s mood.

Well, I never! So literature is good for you after all! What a relief! And here I was thinking I’ve been wasting my time pursuing it for so many years!

Maybe, some day, we may give up trying to justify it on the basis of alleged side-benefits, and value literature for its literary qualities. And then, we could stop seeing it merely as a tool to help us get on better with or neighbours and colleagues, or as a means of asserting one’s racial identity, or whatever.

Now, wouldn’t that be a novelty?

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15 responses to this post.

  1. I was just reading the same thing this morning, but here: http://www.onfiction.ca/2013/10/research-bulletin-literary-fiction-but.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+onfiction+%28OnFiction%29
    And there’s an information on where to ask for the original research article.

    I do not think that these researches exist to justify literature but to extend the knowledge about our minds and behavior. But I have to say I doubt something like the impact on our emphatic powers can be measured, studied as described.

    Reply

    • Hello Anne,

      First of all, thank you for that link.

      I agree that these researches are not intended to justify literature, but nonetheless, I do find myself dismayed when literature is viewd, as it so often is, as a means to achieving some other aim. There is, throughoutthe internet, much debate on why we should teach literature at school – or, indeed, whether we should teach it at all. If you browse through these, you’ll rarely or ever see any mention of “literary quality”: whenever anyone attempts to justify the teaching of literature, instead of focusing on the ability of literature to enrich, they speak merely of alleged side-effects.

      But as for these studies, I must admit that as a staistician myself, I remain sceptical of the statistical significance of the conclusions. I remain sceptical also of what appears to be an underlying asusmption that correlation necessarily implies causality.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

      • This whole study smells of some kind of clumsiness – not well thought out is my impression. I cannot judge better for I read only three articles (the way the study is presented in media is especially interesting to discuss) about it and not the thing itself but I agree with you on both points – the difference in results between reading literature and non-fiction can not be a statistically significant one. Also, with simple logic one can conclude the ‘findings’, as The Guardian says, of this study on one’s own, so I am not certain what the point really was. To get the numbers?

        It is sad that everything that doesn’t shine money is in question today. Here, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, one is regarded a pitiful fool if s/he is pursuing a diploma or a job out of economy, law, medicine or politics. Art is widely seen as a hobby or something other people do but not your own child. Literature is taught pro forma and discarded, by majority of parents, as something one would never need in life.

        Wishing you an enjoyable weekend,
        Anna

      • There are a number of points regarding this study that one of the reports I have read have thought worth raising. First of all, how reliable is the measure of empathy? Unlike, say, the temperature in a room, or a person’s height, or the weight of luggage that is checked in for a flight, there is no scale on which we may measure “empathy”. For the sake of the study, some metric must be devised: is it a reliable metric?

        Secondly, the question of statistical significance. In the measure of anything, we have to take into account random noise. You take 200 people at random from the streets, split them up completely at random into 2 groups of 100, measure their heights, and take the average for both groups: it would be unlikely indeed for the two groups to have precisely the same average height. The question is: is the difference between the averages significant? There are statistical tests you can do to test for this. Basically, you ask yourself: “What is the probability that this observed difference is merely a consequence of random noise?” If this probability is very small, you can then attach some level of significance to the hypothesis “Group A is on average taller than Group B”. But when this study is done with merely “some volunteers”, I really am dubious as to how rigorous the statistical testing was.

        But of course, no-one who reports these matters ever considers such points!

      • I have also been wondering what kind of reading background have these volunteers. And are we to think that an emphatic person became less so just by reading about birds, for example? The experiences, the impact of the corpus of books read till the date of the study could not, of course, have been separated from the impact of a single text on the day of the study.

        I guess there’s just no point discussing this study further..

      • There certainly isn’t enough technical information given aboutthis study for the reader to draw any firm conclusion, but from what little i can discern, I doubt whether the statistical analysis employed would pass muster in an environment where the results really mattered (e.g. in determining efficacy of certain medical treatments, etc.) Ensuring study samples aren’t biased, or accounting for any known bias, should really be fairly elementary. But as you say, there’s so little attention given to these aspects in the report, it doesn’t really seem worthwhile to peer further. All we can do, I suppose, it to remain sceptical about the conclusions.

  2. Well I usually say, when people say they only read to escape from life (they’re only kidding themselves, like painting a landscape on a prison cell wall is the same as getting out into a field), that I read books to help me deal with life, not to escape from it (much as I enjoy a fun read too). And I actually find that sort of read just as entertaining anyway.

    I do hate the term ‘literary fiction’ though. It’s usually applied to some book written with the author’s head up their arse and one hand playing with their genitalia — which at least adds a degree of difficulty to the task.

    What worries me is that my putative publisher specialises in ‘experimental fiction’, which I also hate as a term, and had no idea I was doing. So presumably my book is just gobbledegook, but they think it’s the subtle product of some intellectual excercise or other. Having seen Joyce’s illegible handwriting, I always suspected Finnegans Wake (one of my favourite reads) was actually an attempt at a Chandleresque thriller, but was typed up as best as a secretary could manage, and hijacked by the critics before Joyce could check the proofs.

    Reply

    • I honestly don’t know what the term “literary fiction” is. It’s like talking about an “artistic painting”. As I understand it, “literary” means “possessing literary qualities” – in the same way as “artistic” means “possessing qualities of artistry” (those definitions are possibly tautological, but never mind!) There’s no more point in reading a non-literary book than there is hanging up a non-artistic painting.

      I am also dubious about the term “escapism” – even when applied to light literature As you know, i am a big fan of Sherlock Holmes stories, and I love entering that fictional world. But that surely doesn’t imply I want to “escape” from this one!

      The term “enterainment” is another awkward one: of course, anything you go out of your way to read is “entertaining “by definition, for if it weren’t, you wouldn’t be reading it. But nonetheless, we do approach “Teh Brothers Karamazov” and “The Hound of teh Baskervilles” with very different expectations, and we generally take very different things out of them. And if we are to use the word “entertainment” for both, we stretch the word to cover so many diverse things that it ceases to be a critically useful term. For instance, i am glad I read primo levi’s “If This is a Man”, and I would be keen to read it again; butis it reasonable to describe a book such as this as “entertainment”? I don’tthink so. We must, I think, allow for art not to be entertaining – at least, in the sense in which “entertainment” is commonly understood.

      As for Finnegans Wake, it generally goes over my head. But teh bits that i hav eread and understood are actually very enjoyable, and, yes, “entertaining”!

      Reply

  3. Reblogged this on A Celebration of Reading and commented:
    Alternate reporting on this study is available from The Guardian at http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/oct/08/literary-fiction-improves-empathy-study .

    Reply

  4. Given the number of times this study has showed up in my Twitter feed, without comment or criticism, I can see that it has proven that a lot of bookish folks are highly susceptible to flattery. Or that reading “literary fiction” suppresses critical thinking.

    Reply

    • Well, we all like a bit of flattery, I guess!

      One point that always strikes me in these studies is the seeming indifference to statistical significance. I know from my day job how difficult it can be to determine statistical significance in hypothesis testing even when you have a lot of data, and even when the hypothesis being tested relates to variables that can be measured objectively. Yet here, and in similar studies, we are testing hypotheses relating to variables that can’t be measured objectively (e.g. level of empathy), based on tests carried out with “some volunteers”, who may or may not be representative of the population. How can anyone in their right minds take this sort of thing seriously? And where do they get funding from to carry out this kind of “study”?

      Reply

  5. I heard the of the same study and also reacted with skepticism. It was reported on the local NPR station where I have no doubt it made many of the listeners feel good about their reading habits (OK, even though I am doubtful the story STILL made me feel good about my reading habits).

    I am thinking that if there are additional studies that do NOT show a correlation it would be unlikely that they would be making the news.

    Reply

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