How long has society deemed the terms fiction and fantasy interchangeable? How long have the self-designated elite snubbed their nose at escapist stories of might and magic, of the exploration of new planets, or the unknown parts of our own?
When C.S. Lewis told his friend J.R.R. Tolkien that the only people who instinctively find the word escapism dirty are jailers, he spoke to a sentiment long held by lovers of fiction. Yes, it is escapism, a means to discover stories that exist beyond reality, but it is also a way in which young and old, writers and readers alike, can develop a newfound understanding of the people, places, and things around them. Fiction does not separate us from the ‘real world’; it is a light by which we can see it more clearly.
In 2013, social psychologist Emanuele Castano and David Kidd of the New School for Social Research released a study that revealed how literary fiction enhances the reader’s ability to empathise and communicate with others, especially those whose cultures and upbringings differentiate from their own.
Entitled Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, the study consisted of five experiments in which 1000 subjects were randomly divided into four groups. The first would read excerpts from popular novels – including the likes of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or The Sins of the Mother by Danielle Steele. The second read literary novels, such as the work of Anton Chekov and Louise Erdrich. The third group read non-fiction, while the final group read nothing at all.
After completing their reading, participants undertook a range of tests designed to measure their ability to infer and define human emotions.
The results were enlightening.
Those who did not read, or read non-fiction work, failed to give any significant responses. Those who read popular fiction scored somewhat, but not dramatically higher.
Literary fiction readers, on the other hand, showed consistently better results. Their ability to read emotions – to empathise with others – was well beyond average. This suggests reading literary fiction is of great benefit when it comes to navigating the complexities of social interaction.
Castano and Kidd use two terms to explain the distinction: readerly, and writerly.
Readerly writing is passive, and is most commonly found in popular, or genre fiction. In Gone Girl, the mystery unfolds before the reader. They can make assumptions about what is going to happen, but by the end every detail is laid out. The Sins of the Mother is similarly overt. Nothing drives the characters beyond the words on the page. It’s similar in non-fiction writing; everything is laid out in as obvious a manner as possible so that the meaning of the writing is clear.
Writerly writing, however, is active. It invites the readers to fill in the gaps, to make assumptions, to participate. Writerly writing is a social experience unto itself.
These findings may seem pretentious, and the experiments have received some criticism from those who argue that the procedure involved was not entirely sound, but they do allow us to objectify the value of fiction beyond its means to entertain.
That is not the only way fiction invites new perspective.
In 1996, Neil Gaiman wrote Neverwhere, a novel celebrated for the way it addresses the struggles of the homeless and dispossessed in the context of a fantastic adventure through London’s magical underworld.
Now, over 20 years later, Gaiman is returning to the world of Neverwhere in a sequel entitled The Seven Sisters. This time, his focus will be on refugees, a decision inspired by his work as Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“The giant wheel has turned over the last few years and looking around the work I have been doing for UNHCR for refugees, the kind of shape… London is in now, the kind of ways (it) is different to how it was 20 years ago, meant that I decided that it actually was time to do something.
“Now I had things I was angry about. I cared about things I wanted to put in and I’m now a solid three chapters in to a book called The Seven Sisters,” he told a crowd of cheering fans at London’s Southbank Centre in February 2017.
Gaiman’s work is popular fiction, written for a broad audience of fantasy lovers. In no way will that dilute Gaiman’s ability to tell an eye-opening story from a perspective that is too often dismissed. Those that will most appreciate the work will do so because of the way it combines modern issues with fantastic themes, not despite it.
Perhaps now more than ever, the world is crying out for empathy and understanding. There is an almighty divide, and it seems only to be growing wider. If books can help bridge that gap, than it is time to encourage others to take a journey with Frodo, or Aslan, or Anya Ranevskaya . Damn the critics who would argue otherwise.