Fictional Science

Reading literary fiction, but not popular fiction or nonfiction, improves your empathy and social skills, according to a report in The New York Times about a recent scientific study.

It took me two paragraphs of the Times story to come to a one-word evaluation of the study: Hogwash. It just didn’t make sense. I could maybe believe a study that said well-written, character-driven fiction increased empathy, but I find it hard to believe that reading highly experimental literary fiction — say Finnegan’s Wake — would improve social skills more than reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

I wanted to read the study to see if I could find the flaws — Jennifer A. Raff, an anthropologist and geneticist, has provided an excellent guide for reviewing scientific papers — but it is, of course, behind a paywall. Fortunately, linguist Mark Liberman, who is brilliant at dissecting popular but bad scientific studies, cut it to ribbons on Language Log, validating my gut feeling and demonstrating why the study didn’t work.

Liberman says:

[I]t’s just as inappropriate to conclude anything about literary fiction vs. popular fiction, or literary fiction vs. nonfiction, based on a comparison of a very small number of short excerpts, selected by the researchers to be somehow typical or characteristic of the genre — especially given that the researchers chose the samples in an attempt to get exactly the results that they got.

I’ve been reading Liberman’s analysis of bad science for years — he’s taken apart a lot of studies that purport to show huge differences between men and women — and it seems to have paid off. My gut feeling that there’s something wrong with a study — even if all I can find is a news report about it — is getting accurate.

But Liberman’s critique and my reaction lead me to another question: What was the point of this study? I understand the desire to figure out the affect of various activities on behavior and the brain, but the purpose of this study seems to be to promote literary fiction at the expense of other kinds. Given Samuel R. Delany’s dictum that “literary is just another genre” and the fact that some books considered “trash” when they were published are later found to be great literature, it seems rather silly to make so much of book labels based primarily on marketing decisions.

Novels of all kinds used to be considered inferior reading. Opera is now high-brow, but was once a popular form. My new novella Ardent Forest is science fiction, but it’s based on Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Shakespeare scholars might be interested in what I did with it and I’d be thrilled if it moved a few people to go read the play. (I am a Shakespeare fan girl.) I couldn’t have written it without reading (and viewing) a lot of Shakespeare. And, of course, Shakespeare’s plays were popular entertainment when he wrote them, though they are now the very definition of literature.

Apparently such studies are designed to boost the importance of university English departments at a time when society is defining education in terms of future earnings and people make many, many jokes about English majors working at McDonald’s. And although there is good scholarly work being done on science fiction and some other genres that are frequently disparaged, English departments do concentrate on teaching the current idea of the literary canon.

Now I’m all in favor of maintaining English departments and liberal arts programs in general. But I don’t think bad scientific studies are going to help much. The real solution is to quit justifying education on the grounds of earning capacity alone. Education is about learning to think and, for most of us, the best education exposes us to everything from poetry to physics. People who can think well tend to find ways to make a good living, regardless of what they studied in school.



Fictional Science — 9 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for this post. I liked it by itself, but you also led me Mark Liberman’s post and that — via the comments — led me to Annie Neugebauer’s post on What Is Literary Fiction. She has another post of commercial fiction, which is also interesting. You might want to check Neugetbauer out, if you don’t know her already. (She’s Texan.)

  2. The point of the study was to evade “literary is just another genre”. They don’t want it to be just another genre. They want it to be a mark of distinction. Therefore, they look for things to make it distinctive, and they certainly can’t go for gripping plots or admirable characters.

    Essays decrying the attitudes of literary writers toward genre have not changed their arguments over the decades. This is because the attitudes have never changed, nor the arguments used to defend the attitudes.

  3. I love that title, “fictional science.” Unfortunately, the argument is just putting a pseudo-scientific gloss on the age-old argument that quality (“literary”) is what I point at. Far more interesting, I think, is the total erosion of the idea of the literary authority: when I was young, we were told what was good literature and what was bad. Many of us felt guilty for not liking or finding little value, in what was supposedly good, while reading to pieces works firmly derided as bad. (Some of which later turned out to be good after all!)

    Now, with the Internet enabling everyone’s voice to be heard, there seems to be a universal shrug.

    • One of the problems with being told what was “good” — at least when I was young — is that they picked the worst examples of supposedly good literature to use as examples. If you’re going to teach Dickens to high schoolers, I suggest A Tale of Two Cities over the tedious Great Expectations.

      I’m getting extremely picky about what I like and what I don’t, but that doesn’t have much to do with genre anymore.

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