Saturday, October 5, 2013

Popular "Versus" Literary Fiction

A recent article in the New York Times described a study showing that people who read literary fiction score better than readers of non-fiction or popular fiction on tests measuring “empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.”  These skills are used in reading body language, decoding what other people might be thinking, predicting another person’s needs, and becoming “sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.”  The study thus suggests that reading literary fiction can help you achieve more social skills.  (“For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekov,” )

I was briefly interviewed for this article—being the Director of a program for Writing Popular Fiction—possibly to see if I would disagree with it.  But instead I gave it my full support, saying it’s no surprise at all that reading literature is valuable in learning how and why people behave.  Such fiction places readers into the minds of other people and allows them to see different worlds through different eyes, and the complexity and depth of its characters and the dialectical interaction with them can help readers gain empathy for people they don’t know and don’t understand. 

What I didn’t get to argue is that the study takes nothing away from the worth of popular fiction, which in its own right is just as valuable and necessary as literary fiction.  The article suggests (to explain its findings) that popular fiction deals more with plot than character, that its readers are passive and do not need to engage as much in deciphering character behavior, and that even in a single work of literature we get a broader spectrum of points-of-view that require participation and active deciphering from the reader. 

These comments are accurate, and I fully endorse the worth of literary fiction.  But popular fiction is not so much inferior as simply different.  You need other scales to evaluate it, and the spread from bad popular fiction (riddled with clich├ęs and stereotypes) to works near literary in style and subject matter but that still fall within “popular,” is as broad as the span of “bad” to “good” in literary fiction.  The reader of popular fiction might be more passive, but the reader chooses how much to be passive in deciding which type of novel to read.  And there’s more direct interaction (through fandom, writing conventions, and social media) between the reader and the writer, which encourages a dialectic of its own. 

In many ways, the appeal of popular fiction can be more direct, more emotional, more immediate, and more personal.  Popular fiction is genre fiction, categorized into generally recognizable types—romance, mystery, science fiction, horror, fantasy—though with much overlap and many sub-genres.  These groupings identify, for the benefit of the readers, what the work is usually about.  Readers choose from these categories to satisfy their particular need, whether for simple entertainment or an emotionally satisfying reaffirmation of personal beliefs.

As opposed to the elaborate, complex, and often open-ended ruminations of literary fiction, readers of popular fiction are usually in search of specific reassurances—the belief that the romance arc can bring two different and antagonistic people together to form a bond, the need for the police or a detective to solve a crime and re-establish the peace of a society threatened by extreme anti-social behavior, the yearning to see and understand parts of the universe (or parts of the future) we can’t yet reach, the assertion that one’s deep fears can be revealed and the manifestation of them ultimately faced, and the knowledge that our waking dreams and fantasies can be embodied in other fictional worlds similar to but different from ours. 

Instead of a questioning exploration into complex selves that can destabilize a reader’s expectations, popular fiction provides a reassurance for individual hopes and longings already defined in the reading culture.  These dreams are common and form distinct groups of readers, so they generally know exactly what they want—a sense of empowerment, justification, and self-assurance for their own wishes, whether those be for a “happy ending,” for outsmarting a murderer, for riding the roller-coaster of a contemporary thriller, or for seeing another world in time and space. 

Maybe that doesn’t lead to the specific social skills addressed in the study, even though genre readers create tight-knit groups of fans with much interaction between themselves and even the writer.  But popular fiction addresses needs that are common enough, and persistent enough, that many people often share them, and thus large enough for publishers to form identifiable markets for them.

There’s thus room for both types of fiction, one that asks questions and one that suggests answers, one that unsettles and one that affirms.

Finally, significantly, readers in the experiment in the study said they enjoyed reading the popular fiction more than the literary. 

That discovery too is no surprise.  

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