Sunday, October 6, 2013

Literary fiction roolz! Or does it?

The big news recently, at least in my circles, is that scientists have finally proven that literary fiction makes you a better person!  Yep, actual scientists and everything.  Of course this sounds so ridiculous that my first thought is that the study is a hoax but after reading a bit more it instead sounds more like a junior high science fair project that copy-hungry journalists picked up.  Though I don’t think we can still entirely rule out the hoax possibility – it really is that silly.

Some points:

*  The study was published by Science who have it walled off so that means I have to rely on news reports about the study.  The most detailed (but still not enough) is in the NYT.

*  The articles I’ve seen show why news outlets so often have trouble with science.  This is one study but it’s being reported as having “proven” that literary fiction creates more empathy.  This is all too similar to countless health articles reporting on a new single study that proves all sorts of things, often when the bulk of other studies show the opposite.  Just look at the stream of reports on any new diet trend or beneficial food to see journalism at its worst.  All that one study shows is that one study shows this. 

*  In fact this one study goes against decades of what we might call empirical observation.  Think about it – the people who most engage with literary fiction are authors, editors, critics and literature professors.  Does anybody think such people (which includes me) are in any way more moral, more empathetic, more observant or even more intelligent?  Or for that matter any student currently taking a lit class would qualify.

*  This study sounds very similar to the much-discussed and utterly untrue “Mozart effect” except in this case it seems like the researchers are making the larger claim.  Also, though the study bases its claims on showing more empathy it’s all too reminiscent of early studies about videogames that proclaimed games made children more violent.  Closer looks showed those studies weren’t in fact measuring violence but aggression and more recent work has revealed that they weren’t even dealing with aggression but competitiveness.  In other words, just because they say they’re measuring something doesn’t mean that’s what’s actually happening.

*  The NYT quotes one psychologist who says this report was not one but five experiments but that doesn’t matter for two reasons.  For one thing these aren’t five separate studies/experiments but five repetitions so that any flaws or blind spots are just repeated as well.  Second, the five experiments all include literary fiction but otherwise test it against something else (popular fiction, nonfiction, no reading) meaning they aren’t exactly comparable.

*  The point of the above?  Because one part of this study has participants viewing a photograph of eyes then choosing one of four adjectives that describe them.  Basically that’s not measuring empathy at all but asking for an evaluation of a mental state.  More to the point is why would the psychologists think that verbal activity helps with visual processing?  Participants had a 25% chance to guess the correct answer anyway so I’ll just assume the psychologists had statistically significant (love that term) results.  Obviously I’m not at all familiar with these testing procedures so whether or not I think they actually work isn’t entirely to the point – but it’s not missing it because this isn’t at all settled among the scientificcommunity.

*  Look at it this way:  If the reading supposedly creates empathy by putting you in the mind of another person (we’ll ignore how problematic that is on so many different levels) then how does evaluating eyes reflect that?  Actually how does evaluating eyes have any bearing on empathy at all?  I’m sure there are plenty of psychopaths who are quite good at reading faces but my understanding of “psychopath” is that by definition such person lacks empathy.

*  None of the reports say if study accounts for class differences.  My understanding is that this has a noticable effect on empathy and charity.

*  Perhaps the biggest problem is one that still suggests a hoax but if not then it indicates that the study should be rejected outright.  One report says participants read “a few minutes” which another person later specifies as 3-5 minutes.  This isn’t reading literary fiction but swallowing a pill.  In fact in many cases that’s not even enough time to distinguish literary fiction from anything else.  I suspect the psychologists would argue that this is irrelevant because lit fict works regardless but that goes against the claim.  If lit fict works because it’s more ambiguous, requires more thought about character, needs involvement then reading just a few pages isn’t enough for that to happen.  You could read three pages of a Harlequin romance or some D&D novelization and the character motivations might be unclear but for entire chapters of A Portrait of a Lady Isabel Archer’s intentions and thoughts are perfectly clear.  It’s only in the whole – in all of A Portrait - that a reader can see that Isabel is much more ambiguous.

*  The study selected “good” literary fiction by choosing award winners so would these results still apply to “bad” literary fiction?  Or the difference between on of Updike’s Rabbit novels and his Terrorist?  (I haven’t read either but basing purely on reputation – and it doesn’t matter whether this specific example is accurate since there are plenty of others.)  The point being that “bad” lit fict might intend to be ambiguous and require interpretation but it doesn’t.  I’d argue that this is also true to some extent of much “good” lit fict – it tells you how to think about it.  I recently read some Raymond Carver stories and was surprised and how heavy-handed they were and how he underlined everything – nothing unclear or needing interpretation there. 

*  If literary fiction creates more empathy becauses if focuses on character then shouldn’t popular fiction create better problem-solving skills because it focuses on plot?  There’s the subject for the next study.

*  It’s very odd that the psychologists apparently think there’s no literary nonfiction.  (“Nonfiction” being really a classifiction people encounter in public libraries that doesn’t quite exist anywhere else – just one of many reasons that I’m pretty sure these psychologists have no idea about literature, fiction or art.)   So would they get the same results from that?  Is it the “literary” or the “fiction” or the combination? 

*  Poor Louise Erdrich comes off so badly in the report that I suspect she didn’t know what she was responding to. 

*  I was going to avoid the entire idea of separating out literary fiction but not after reading the articles that all simply assume it’s superior.  Today “literary fiction” is itself a genre as many (but far from all) writers and critics would admit.  As the articles point out it’s realistic (a loaded term that I’ll leave alone for now), based on character, psychologically familiar, a bit more ambiguous (at least at times) and stylistically delicate.  Historically this is something of an anomaly or just a phase depending on how you want to look at it but the literary fiction crowd have been nothing if not self-promoters and positioned lit fict as the pinnacle of literature.  It doesn’t help that most literary fiction people that I’ve encountered are remarkably ill-informed about literary history but to be fair that’s not just them and is also true to different degrees for musicians, filmmakers and other creative types.  Greil Marcus once commented on the difficulty of convincing people that one of the most important living writers wrote almost nothing but record reviews (Lester Bangs) and that gets to the point.  If your reading habits and possibly even career are tied up with the idea that novels and short stories set in plausible everyday surroundings involving plausible everyday people with plausible everyday problems told in an ever-so slightly showy but really quite timid style is really the only thing that MATTERS then yeah you’ll dismiss everything else as mere entertainment.  This is why it’s so amusing to watch the twists such people have to make to avoid acknowledging that “literary” writers sometimes write “genre” – Margaret Atwood (three science fiction novels), Toni Morrison (at least one fantasy novel - Beloved), Cormac McCarthy (one SF – The Road), Philip Roth (one SF – The Plot Against America), Michael Chabon (one fantasy – Kavalier & Clay), Jonathan Lethem (who at least is open about his).  Diane Johnson and Cathleen Schine have played with elements of romance fiction while mysteries have become so close to acceptable that somebody like John Banville can have a separate, fairly respected career writing it.  My point isn’t that literary fiction is a sham but that it is inherently of no greater artistic value than any other genre and that most people claiming it is are making unsupportable rationalizations.