Literary fiction elucidates human condition

If asked to decide between reading literary fiction the “classic” novels, as people say or popular fiction, most people would likely choose the latter. After all, popular fiction tends to feel more relatable and is, sometimes, much more exciting. However, a recent study performed by the New School for Social Research suggests that readers may benefit more from electing to read literary fiction over popular fiction, as the former seems to instill a better understanding of human emotion.

Through conducting a series of tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence, researchers found that those who had read excerpts from literary fiction performed better than those who had read excerpts from popular fiction and nonfiction. The researchers claim that reading literary fiction teaches readers how to empathize more effectively because the characters’ emotions and feelings are more ambiguous. This ambiguity forces the reader to make more inferences about emotions and the complexities of the characters.

I wholeheartedly agree with the results of this study. However, I feel as though the researchers behind the study neglected to touch on a fundamental aspect of literary fiction that lends itself to a better understanding of human emotion: the focus on the human condition.

Nearly every piece of literary fiction is, at its core, an exploration of mankind – their struggles, character and morals. In fact, many authors and editors claim that for a piece to truly be considered “literary fiction,” it must be character-driven, not plot-driven as is commonly the case with popular fiction. The authors of literary fiction use characters’ development as a way to showcase the nuances of both personal and societal emotion. In fact, the first novels were actually written primarily as instruction on character, with entertainment as a secondary concern. Early novelists aimed to teach their audiences about the human condition, and in reading such works of literature, the audience is able to take these lessons and gain from them a heightened ability to empathize.

Popular fiction, on the other hand, seems to strive more for entertainment than instruction. Of course, there is an underlying message to the story, but this message tends to be pushed to the side in favor of a more exciting, developed plot. This is by no means a bad thing, nor is it a detraction from the merit of the genre itself – who doesn’t love getting enraptured by a fast-paced, twist-filled book? However, this primary focus on plot is just not as conducive to developing a higher sense of empathy.

Although literary fiction has obviously undergone numerous changes throughout the decades, the focus on the human condition has stayed consistent no matter the plot, and is almost always more prominent in this genre than in popular fiction. A book may be about hunting a whale, like “Moby Dick,” or about two people falling in love, like “Pride and Prejudice,” but unlike in popular fiction, there is a deep-set message beneath the plot about human character. After finishing the novel, the reader comes away with more empathy and a greater understanding of human emotion, whether it is gained consciously or unconsciously. The study shows that this greater sense of empathy can even be achieved by reading a piece of literary fiction for only a few minutes.

So the next time you are looking for something to read, try picking up some Chekhov. With a heightened awareness of the human condition and a renewed sense of empathy, maybe you’ll finally be able to figure out why your roommate was so mad after you ate that entire bag of their favorite chips.

Madisen Egan ’16 is from St. Paul, Minn. She majors in English and biology.

Image by Emma Johnson