Want to be a better person? Read fiction.
Sarah Stealey Reed
To read, or not to read; is that even a question? As a voracious bibliophile since childhood, I’ve pored through endless tomes of mayhem, blood and gore, fantasy, and dystopian civilizations. My preferences while vast, lean heavily towards the dark, the depraved, and the dysfunctional. And yes, while I happily consume autobiographies and historical non-fiction, when I have a choice, fiction prevails.
For many social critics and educators (most notably, backers of Common Core), popular fiction is simply garbage. It is trash. It is not real, and therefore not relevant. Even Noel Gallagher, the guitarist and songwriter for Oasis, agrees. He infamously degraded the genre in a GQ interview with Danny Wallace. “I mean, novels are just a waste of fucking time,” he said. “I can't suspend belief in reality...I just end up thinking, 'This isn't fucking true.' I like reading about things that have actually happened.”
Fiction fanatics, such as myself, vehemently disagree. Fiction gives us a place to bend reality, to experiment emotionally, and to consider alternative solutions. Just because Wendy Torrance is a character conceived within Stephen King’s brain, doesn’t mean we don’t feel her terror in The Shining. As her husband Jack descends further into madness, we relate to her concern, her fear, and her maternal desire to save her son. We connect with Wendy, even though most of us have never encountered ghostly spirits while our husband chases us through a desolate hotel with an axe. Likewise, while Harry Potter ‘isn’t fucking true,' Potter’s anguish over losing his parents, and his excitement and trepidation over his future are very relatable. "Good fiction's job is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable," said author David Foster Wallace.
Fiction gives us a place to bend reality, to experiment emotionally, and to consider alternative solutions.
The upside of the story
The benefits of reading fiction go far beyond stretching our creative boundaries. Psychologist Keith Oatley and his colleagues proved that reading fiction increases empathy and social understanding. And equally as important, their research showed that the rise in empathy wasn't just isolated to socially-skilled people that naturally gravitated to fiction. In fact, follow-up research by Washington & Lee psychologist Dan Johnson found that not only did fiction increase empathy, but that empathy then naturally leads to the desire to help others. "It appears," Johnson writes, “that ‘curling up with a good book’ may do more than provide relaxation and entertainment. Reading narrative fiction allows one to learn about our social world and as a result fosters empathic growth and prosocial behavior.” Fiction reduces social friction.
What's empathy got to do with it?
Empathy is our capacity to understand and feel another person's situation from their perspective. It's not about being sympathetic, or feeling poorly for a person. Empathy is about appreciating why they feel the way they do. The Wyman Center says that while sympathy creates a relationship between people (or people and things), empathy evolves the relationship into a deeper emotional experience. Empathy is what causes us to take action or to try and prevent harmful things from occurring. "This is how we can change the world," Wyman says.
InNot feeling it? Learn how to navigate the roadblocks to empathy, Suzanne Barnecut explains that you aren't stuck with the empathy card you've been dealt. By having an active or invested interest in being more empathetic, you'll probably become more so. And studies show that you can learn compassion. Barnecut interviewed Magali Charmot from Seek Company, who said, "Empathy starts with self-awareness. Training empathy helps people understand the two types of empathy (i.e., cognitive vs. contagious) and helps bring empathy at a conscious level. We have the ability to choose to be empathic.”
The story continues
A 2013 study of 100 University of Toronto students illustrated that people who read fictional short stories have a lower self-reported need for 'cognitive closure' than those who read non-fiction essays.
What's cognitive closure? It's the desire for firm decisions, clear answers to questions, and a lack of ambiguity. While this may sound pretty good, it’s not very realistic. And too much of it forces us into closed-mindedness and autocratism. Too much cognitive closure is a crush to creativity.
The University of Toronto research infers that just like with empathy, cognitive closure can change. But where empathy appears to need particular intention to evolve, cognitive closure can do so passively through the reading of fiction.
Not all fiction is created equal
My personal penchant for the otherworldly may make me a poor literary critic. At a minimum, it's not improving my empathy score by a significant margin, say researchers at The New School in New York City. "Although the settings and situations are grand, the characters are internally consistent and predictable, which tends to affirm the reader’s expectations of others. It stands to reason that popular fiction does not expand the capacity to empathize."
Literary fiction, on the other hand, is said to better teach us values about social behavior since the characters are more likely to disrupt prejudices and stereotypes. “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations,” says David Kidd, a then PhD candidate at The New School. Kidd feels that this ambiguity, the push against cognitive closure, is more prevalent in literary fiction thereby forcing us to work our brains harder.
“You should never read just for enjoyment," proclaims film director and writer John Waters in his book Role Models. "Read to make yourself smarter! Less judgmental. More apt to understand your friends' insane behavior, or better yet, your own. Pick hard books. Ones you have to concentrate on while reading. And for god's sake, don't let me ever hear you say, 'I can't read fiction. I only have time for the truth.' Fiction is the truth, fool!"
Regardless of the genre, few would argue that there aren't significant benefits intrinsic to the craft of reading fiction. Literary and popular fiction is often an amalgamation, and one is not easily decipherable from another. So read for empathy, read for creativity, and for the love of it all, read for enjoyment.
Sarah Stealey Reed is the editor of Relate. When she's not wandering the world, she's a loud writer of customer experiences, contact centers, and optimistic relationships. Find her on Twitter at @stealeyreed.