Yesterday, I tweeted this piece about how reading literary fiction (vs. popular fiction) develops our ability to understand and decipher social cues that power our relationships with other people. My initial reaction to the article was, “Hmmm, interesting. Makes sense.” I think all self-respecting bookworms would agree that books teach us much more than facts and big words, they teach us human behavior. So, of course literary fiction would sharpen our abilities to identify emotional and intellectual motivations and apply them to ourselves and our real-world dilemmas. After all, wasn’t that the point of all those tedious essays we wrote in high school and college about why Emma Bovary was so delusional or why Ahab couldn’t just leave that dumb whale alone?
But something about the piece troubled me, and my “Aha!” moment came when I read this slightly different take on the New School study. In the first article the examples of popular fiction were Danielle Steel’s The Sins of the Mother and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Literary fiction, on the other hand was represented by Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, Don DeLillo and Anton Chekhov. Okaaay, who decided that Gillian Flynn is more popular than literary or that she should be featured in the same sentence as Danielle Steel? Before you Steel fans get all worked up, I am not casting aspersions on that author’s prodigious body of work. I am merely saying that just because a book sells a lot of copies and hangs out on the bestseller lists for a while does not make it “popular fiction” as the literary snobs among us think of it any more than tiny print runs and fewer sales make something “literary.” And so claiming that Flynn’s brilliantly crafted, psychological thriller is for the purposes of this study less literary than Obreht’s book* seems to point to a major fault in the findings if, in fact, that is the criteria for judgment.
All of this, of course, takes us to the old publishing pastime of arguing over whether something is literary or commercial. If sales are the basis for categorization, then Cormac McCarthy, Phillip Roth, and, yes, Mr. Dickens would all be labeled popular fiction authors. Of course, the study makes the point that a “literary” work is one that is more concerned with its characters’ internal processes and less with plot and action, thus forcing us to work harder at deciphering motivation. But haven’t we all read many plot driven novels that have been raised to the literary canon? Ahem, Mr. Dickens, again.
Personally, I think that most fiction flexes our mental muscles. Even formula romance (or mystery, or science fiction) forces us to look for motivation and emotional cause and effect. Maybe some books make us work harder and, therefore, give us the brain equivalent of a six-pack, but my sense is that I’ve learned a thing or two even from wildly popular fiction that I may not have by reading only highbrow stuff.
What do you think? Is it possible that the bias in this study is “literary”? Can you think of samples of popular fiction that forced you to bring out your empathy/social decoding tools?
*In the interest of full disclosure, I hated that book.