For almost a century, Western culture has labelled fiction as escapism; a way of blinding oneself to the realities of a tangible world, and the baggage that comes with it.
I’ve always found that notion to be trivial and unfair. It’s only recently, however, that we’ve had the scientific proof to unequivocally claim that it is also entirely false.
In 2013, social psychologist Emanuele Castano and David Kidd of the New School for Social Research released a study detailing proof that literary fiction enhances the reader’s ability to empathise and communicate with others, especially those from other walks of life.
In Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind, Castano and Kidd conduct five experiments in which a total of 1000 subjects were randomly assigned excerpts from either popular novels – including the likes of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or The Sins of the Mother by Danielle Steele – literary novels – the work of Anton Chekov, Louise Erdrich etc. – non-fiction, or didn’t read anything at all.
After they had completed the task, the participants were subjected to a range of Theory of Mind tests designed to measure their ability to infer and define human emotions.
The results were rather compelling.
Those who did not read, or read non-fiction work, failed to give any significant responses. Those who read popular fiction scored barely 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 our eyes. The Sins of the Mother is overt in its machinations. 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 inclusive. 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 said, I feel they are only the tip of the iceberg. There are many other means through which fiction can incite understanding in our culture.
Just ask Neil Gaiman, the internationally acclaimed author of Neverwhere, a novel that subtly addressed the struggles of the homeless and dispossessed in the context of a fantastic, fun adventure through the hidden side of London.
Neverwhere was written in 1996, and now, over two decades later, Gaiman is returning to its world for a sequel, The Seven Sisters. This time, he will focus on refugees, inspired by his work as Goodwill Ambassador the UNHCR – the UN refugee agency.
“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.
As the style of fiction does not define its ability to inspire empathy, nor does the medium.
Few examples are better than Moonlight, winner of the 2017 Academy Award for Best Picture.
Moonlight depicts the struggles of black people, homosexuals, the bullied and the poor in a tragic, hard-hitting way. It’s hard to imagine that, by the time the credits roll, viewers won’t have found themselves fundamentally impacted by what the film portrays, even more so than reading, or viewing similar stories through the news. To experience it, to analyse it as events unfold, is what allows us to truly care.
Perhaps now more than ever, the world is crying out for empathy and understanding. So let’s pick up a book, put on a DVD, or get to writing ourselves, and do our part in bridging the divide.