A study from the New School of Social Research found participants who read literary fiction (National Book Award finalists or winners of the 2012 PEN/O) – outperformed those who read the latest best-sellers or non-fiction in tests of reading and measuring other people’s emotions. Kidd and Castano, published their findings in Science and suggest ‘Unlike popular fiction, literary fiction requires intellectual engagement and creative thought from its readers….features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances.’
In order to truly react to the characters in a book, you have to put yourself in their shoes – understand how the someone else sees the world. This is the purest definition of empathy. Why do we identify with the naive but well intentioned Jane Austen character ‘Emma’? Why does it bother us that the protagonist in Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ is never actually named? Why do we wonder about the ‘mad woman in the attic’ featured in Jane Eyre – so much she inspired other writers to create a back story for her, such as ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys? Because we are empathetic, we want to get into other people’s heads…and it’s a highly valuable social skill to have.
While their sample sizes are small the research is limited, what’s notable is these disparities came after merely reading long excerpts – the participants didn’t claim to be life-long readers or huge fans of non-fiction in order to be classified. Their classifications was based on what they had been randomly assigned to read. This suggests these skills can be improved if readers read works with strong but nuanced characters. Kidd and Castano explain : “Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration”. So get reading! It may just help you understand your colleagues, your boss and your clients all the more. And who doesn’t want more of that type of insight?