Jonathan Franzen and company must be salivating at the recent ‘study’ that apparently finds literary fiction makes you more empathetic, and maybe that’s in some degree true. Except, why does it have to be literary fiction specifically? I’ve read a few books that are considered literary fiction, the Corrections, The Casual Vacancy, Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore, and of the 3 of them Mr. Penumbra’s was the most interesting, yet the Casual Vacancy had the most character depth as far as characters that might theoretically make one empathic to others, and yet in spite of all of this J.K.Rowling’s other books, Harry Potter are often most cited as having made the generation of kids who read them more empathetic over all and more inclusive of other thoughts and ideas. Begging the question, what’s literary fiction got to do with it?
Slate pointed out another interesting question too, are we really going decide whether or not a book is worth reading based on how good of a person it could theoretically make you? I can’t imagine picking up any novel thinking reading it is going to somehow make me a more empathetic person, you read because you love books, because you want to be taken somewhere else. But the idea that somehow there are good books to read and bad books to read is a little elitist wouldn’t you think? And who’s to even make that judgement?
I don’t like particularly Twilight or Fifty Shades but does reading either of them make you a bad person? Probably not. Do I think people who love books should diversify their reading as much as possible, certainly. But I can tell you, of the literary books I have personally read, I don’t feel any different for having read them, and honestly in a lot of ways I don’t feel any different for having read non-fiction or genre books either. How they’ve changed me versus others who didn’t read them is such a strange question. I’m not even sure you can really accurately measure empathy based on a persons’s reading habits anyway, there are probably plenty of outliers and certainly every person is different. It must stand to reason then that some people were taught empathy in the home and these stories may have added to it?
I’m no scientist, (except for my Bachelors of Science that says I kind of am, in graphic design) but I remember the scientific theory from grade school, and when you come up with a hypothesis that would almost be impossible to accurately measure, you create an experiment with very limited parameters. And really we have to ask ourselves why does it matter? Far be it for me to question anyone’s scientific exploration but is this really the question we need to be asking ourselves in 2016? There’s still so much scientific work that needs to be done on diseases and medicine and yes I realize that the study wasn’t done by those type of scientists, or any if I recall, but even then… there are better scientific questions of a literary nature surely.