10 September 2016

A Question of Empathy: The Social Scientists, The Poet, and the Mystery Reader

Two scholars at the New School for Social Research published an article about literature and empathy last month, full of bad news for mystery readers. If you belong to Sisters in Crime and saw the most recent SinC Links, you may have noticed the references to "Different Stories: How Levels of Familiarity with Literary and Genre Fiction Relate to Mentalizing." The authors, David Kidd and Emanuelle Castano, say people who read novels by authors such as Alice Walker and Vladimir Nabakov excel on a test of "theory of mind," indicating they have superior abilities "to infer and understand others' thoughts and feelings." Such readers are likely to be characterized by "empathy, pro-social behavior, and coordination in groups." Readers of mysteries and other genre fiction don't do as well on the test. So apparently we're an obtuse, hardhearted, selfish bunch, and we don't play well with others.

This is grim stuff. And maybe I'm exaggerating a bit. I made myself read the whole study--and let me tell you, the experience didn't do wonders for my levels of empathy. Kidd and Castano don't actually say genre readers suffer from all those problems. In fact, they speculate that reading any kind of fiction may do some good. But they definitely think reading literary fiction does more good than reading genre fiction does. Literary fiction, they say, has complex, round characters, and that "prompts readers to make, adjust, and consider multiple interpretations of characters' mental states." Genre fiction relies on flat, stock characters and therefore doesn't encourage readers to develop comparable levels of mental agility and emotional insight. The authors discuss other differences, too--for example, they say literary fiction features "multiple plot lines" and challenges "routine or rigid ways of thinking," while genre fiction is characterized by "formulaic plots" and encourages "conventional thinking." I won't try to summarize all their arguments. It would take too long, and it would get too depressing.

I will say a little--only a little--about their research methods. To distinguish between literary readers and genre readers, Kidd and Castano put together a long list of names--some literary authors, some genre authors, some non-authors--and asked participants to check off the names with which they were familiar. People who checked off more names of literary authors were classified as readers of literary fiction, and--well, you get the idea. To determine levels of empathy and other good things, Kidd and Castano had participants take the "reading the mind in the eyes" test: Participants looked at pictures that showed only people's eyes, looked at four adjectives (for example, "scared," "anxious," "encouraging," and "skeptical"), and chose the adjective that best described the expression in the pictured eyes. Participants identified as readers of literary fiction did a better job of matching eyes with adjectives. Therefore, they're more empathetic and perceptive than readers of genre fiction.

It's not hard to spot problems with these research methods. Scottish crime writer Val McDermid does a shrewd, funny job of that in a piece also mentioned in SinC Links. (Among other things, Val says she took the "reading the eyes in the mind" test and got thirty-three out of thirty-six right, beating the average score of twenty-four. Just for fun, I took the test, too, and scored thirty-four. That may prove I'm one point more empathetic than Val. Or it may prove the test is silly.) And of course decisions about which authors are "literary" and which are "genre" can be subjective. Kidd and Castano talk about how they wavered about the right category for Herman Wouk. The Caine Mutiny won a Pulitzer Prize, so maybe Wouk's a literary author. On the other hand, some critics accuse Mutiny of "upholding conventional ideas and values," so maybe he's merely genre. (Kidd and Castano never consider the question of whether a knee-jerk rejection of all ideas and values currently judged "conventional" might sometimes reflect a lack of insight and empathy. Is sympathy for people who devote their lives to military service automatically shallow and nasty? Is portraying an intellectual as a fraud never justified?)

As for their method of classifying participants as either "literary readers" or "genre readers," I recognized the names of almost all the authors on both lists. I've heard of James Patterson--most people have--but I've never read a book of his; I don't think I've sampled a single page. With many other authors (both "literary" and "genre"), I've read a few pages, a few chapters, or a single story, and then I've put the book  aside and never picked it up again. Recognizing an author's name isn't evidence of a preference for a certain kind of fiction. For heaven's sake, how many people make it through middle school without reading To Kill a Mockingbird? So how does checking off Harper Lee's name on a list indicate a preference for literary fiction? (For that matter, some might argue To Kill a Mockingbird is crime fiction, and Lee therefore belongs on the genre list. It could be that Kidd and Castano consider crime fiction that's well written literary. If so, that's sort of stacking the deck against genre--if a work of genre fiction is really good, it no longer counts as genre.)

It may be--and I'm certainly not the first person to suggest this--that social science's methods aren't ideally suited to analyzing literature, or to determining its effects on our minds and souls. Social science, by its nature, seeks to quantify things in exact terms. Maybe literature and its effects can't be quantified. Maybe attempts to measure some things exactly are more likely to lead us astray than to enlighten us. As Aristotle says in Book I of the Ethics, "it is the mark of an educated [person] to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs."

If social scientists can't help us understand the connection between literature and empathy, who can? Perhaps a poet. In 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote "A Defense of Poetry" in response to a friend's largely playful charge that poetry is useless and fails to promote morality. I think we can apply what Shelley says about poetry to fiction, including genre fiction. After all, Shelley declares that "the distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error," and he considers Plato, Francis Bacon, and "all the authors of revolutions in opinion" poets. So why not Agatha Christie and Dashiell Hammet?

I'm going to quote several sentences from "A Defense of Poetry," and I'm not going to make Shelley's choice of nouns and pronouns politically correct. I tinkered with Aristotle's words a bit--it's a translation, so tinkering felt more permissible. But I'll give you Shelley's words (and his punctuation) without amendment:
The whole objection, however, of the immorality of poetry rests upon a misconception of the manner in which poetry acts to produce the moral improvement of man. . . . The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause. . . . Poetry strengthens the faculty which is the organ of the moral nature of man, in the same manner as exercise strengthens a limb.
As far as I know, Shelley compiled no lists, administered no tests, and analyzed no statistics. Even so, there may be more wisdom in these few sentences than in any number of studies churned out by the New School for Social Research, at least when it comes to wisdom about literature.

For Shelley, literature's crucial moral task is to take us out of ourselves. Most of us spend much of our time focusing on our own problems and feelings. When we read, we get caught up in a character's problems and feelings for a while, seeing things through that character's eyes and sharing his or her emotions. This vicarious experience is temporary, but Shelley says it does us lasting good. I like his comparison of reading and physical exercise. Working out at a gym makes our muscles stronger, and that means we're better able to handle any physical tasks and challenges we may encounter. Reading gives our imaginations a workout and makes them stronger. If we feel the humanity in the characters we read about, we're more likely to recognize the humanity in the people we meet. Will we therefore be kinder to them and try harder to make sure they're treated justly? Shelley thinks so.

But won't literary fiction, with all its round, complex characters, give our imaginations a more vigorous workout than genre fiction will? To agree to that, we'd have to agree to Kidd and Castano's generalizations about literary and genre fiction, and I think many of us would hesitate to do so. Yes, the characters in many mysteries are pretty flat, but couldn't the same be said of the characters in many works of literary fiction? Val McDermid challenges some of Kidd and Castano's central assumptions about literary and genre fiction, and I think she makes some persuasive arguments. I won't repeat those here, or get into the question of to what extent current distinctions between "literary" and "genre" have lasting validity, and to what extent they reflect merely contemporary and perhaps somewhat elitist preferences. (Would Fielding, Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, and other still-admired authors be considered "literary" if they hadn't been lucky enough to die before the current classifications slammed into place? Would they be consigned to the junk heap of genre if they were writing today? But I said I wouldn't get into that. I'll stop.)

I'll raise just one question. Shelley says that to be "greatly good," we must imagine not only "intensely" but also "comprehensively," identifying with "many others." If he's right, fiction that introduces us to a wide variety of characters and encourages us to identify with them may exercise our imaginations more effectively than fiction that limits its sympathies to a narrower range of characters.

Generalizations are dangerous, and I'm neither bold enough nor well read enough to propose even tentative generalizations about literary and genre fiction. (And when I say "genre," I really mean "mystery," because I know almost nothing about other types of fiction currently classified as "genre"--though I've read and admired some impressive urban fantasy lately.) All I'll say is that I'm not sure all contemporary literary fiction encourages readers to empathize with many different sorts of characters. Most of the recent literary fiction I've read seems to limit sympathy to intellectual characters with the right tastes and the right opinions. Even if the central character is a concierge from a lower-class background (probably, many of you will recognize the novel I'm talking about), she has to be an autodidact who's managed to develop tastes for classical music, Russian literature, and Eastern art, who turns her television on only to trick her bourgeois employers into thinking she fits their stereotypes. Two other characters who are portrayed in a positive way, a troubled adolescent girl and a wealthy Japanese gentleman, are in many respects variations on the concierge, with similar tastes and opinions; most of the other characters in the novel invite our disdain rather than our sympathy. How often does contemporary literary fiction encourage us to empathize with characters such as a concierge who actually enjoys television, reads romances, and adores Garth Brooks and Thomas Kinkade? George Eliot could have portrayed that sort of character in a genuinely empathetic way. I don't know if many authors of recent literary fiction would have much interest in doingso.

I think some--not all, certainly, but some--genre fiction encourages us to extend our sympathies further. I think many mysteries, for example, introduce us to a variety of characters, including characters who aren't necessarily intellectuals, flawed characters we might be tempted to shun in our day-to-day lives. Mysteries can help us identify with people who have made bad choices and taken wrong turns, with victims, with people caught in the middle, with people determined to set things right, with people who feel overwhelmed by circumstances. I can't cite any studies to support my suggestions, but I think the best mysteries, by portraying a wide range of characters and nudging us to participate in their lives, might give our imaginations a robust workout and help us become more empathetic.

Mysteries can even help us empathize with criminals. That's ironic, in a way, because some social science studies argue criminals are marked by an inability to empathize. Then again, other social science studies challenge those studies, and still other studies--but maybe we shouldn't get into all that. Maybe we should just pick up a favorite mystery and start reading. I bet it'll do us good.

Next week at this time, many of us will be at Bouchercon. Just briefly, I'll mention some SleuthSayers nominated for Anthony awards. Art Taylor's On the Road with Del and Louise, a remarkable example of a mystery that encourages us to empathize with a wide variety of characters, is a finalist for Best First Novel. Art also edited Murder under the Oaks, a finalist for Best Anthology or Collection; both Rob Lopresti and I are lucky enough to have stories in that one. And my Fighting Chance is a finalist for Best Young Adult Novel. If you're so inclined, you can read the first chapter here. Hope to see you in New Orleans!


  1. Just as additional grist for the mill, Kidd and Costano published their first work on TOM and reading several years ago. (David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, “Reading literary fiction improves Theory of Mind,” Science, published online October 3, 2013, doi:10.1126/science.1239918.) The point of their work, however well- or ill-conceived, was to generate "objective data" that justified the importance of reading and especially of library budgets. They were not attempting to disparage any one type of literature but were instead trying to validate reading fiction, as opposed to non-fiction, as a social benefit worthy of funding. This next step, of separaing genres and trying to tell if different ones have different impacts, could be seen as a natural next step in trying to validate the importance of fiction. I am not a fan of "proving" things with data in general, but legislators and politicians who control the purse strings of school and community libraries ARE. So while I think the underlying premise is faulty, the people who hold the purse strings are in the same premise-field. And if that gets them to support libraries, I won't argue with it. *IF* their work is meaningful in a larger sense (and I don't know that it is), I would also point out that a very big difference between someone like you taking the test and someone like my dear old grandmother with a 3rd grade education who read ONLY the pulp-mill detective and true crime stories that were published 40 years ago did, is that you are more well-read. I doubt you could be a successful author otherwise. So your score doesn't invalidate their metric. But, on the other hand again, I personally think that using "objective measures" to validate the arts is not appropriate. But darned if I want to shoot down Kidd and Castano's work if it manages to keep funding going to libraries. Those libraries are STILL going to buy mysteries if they have money. But if they don't have money, they won't be able to keep the doors open. And these days, that's a real issue.

  2. Terrific exploration of this study, Bonnie--and great challenges both to the methodology and, of course, to the findings. I'd seen these conclusions before, but I'll admit I'd never investigated the study more closely, and I appreciate that you did!

    Thanks for the shout-out here too at the end (always a little startled I'll admit to see my name pop up, but appreciate it!) and look forward to seeing you in New Orleans.

  3. Fascinating stuff, B.K. But I would argue their points: some literary fiction can be shallow in every way and some genre fiction can have characters and plots with depth. I read both and I think some of their conclusions are based on snobbery...at least a little.

    Good luck to you and Art!

  4. In my latest experiment to see if I could subtly subvert the thriller genre to create empathy in the reader, I started with a flash forward, forcing the reader to follow all the cues, see what conclusion they came to, and test that conclusion against the ending. "Whether you viewed the atmosphere as benign or sinister depended on what you thought of that woman in FBI detention: the woman who’d pierced the senator’s armor, infecting his phone and his mind. She was a woman of many talents. When she sang, she could set your heart aflutter. When she danced the flamenco, another body part would stir, but chief among her talents, the skill that had captivated the cynical senator, was her innocence. There was no question that she’d wanted him. There was no question that he’d wanted her. The question was what else she wanted. That was for the men, and, hopefully, women of the FBI to discover."

  5. Anonymous, thank you for that background information. I saw references to the earlier study, but I'll admit I didn't read it, and I definitely didn't know about the reasons for it. If the goal is to secure funding for libraries, I'm all for it, and I can see the argument that legislators and others are more likely to be influenced by studies that seem to be supported by data that looks objective. I'm not sure that I see how disparaging genre fiction will help library budgets; I'm not convinced that's a necessary next step in the argument. But you've put Kidd and Castano's work in a larger context, and that's very helpful.

  6. Art, thanks for your comment. I hesitated about reading the full study, but I'm glad I did. (I'll admit I skipped all the tables of statistics--trying to decode them would have been a hopeless task.) And yes, I'm looking forward to New Orleans, too--hard to believe the time is getting so close!

  7. Paul, I definitely agree that there's plenty of shallow literary fiction and plenty of excellent genre fiction. Val McDermid makes those arguments in her article, and I think she does a fine job. And I think there's plenty of snobbery involved in contemporary distinctions between literary and genre fiction. Among other things, I think there's an elitist notion that popular fiction is inherently inferior. If lots of people can understand and enjoy something, it must be mediocre; only fiction that can be appreciated only by the few can possibly be excellent. I think this is a relatively modern notion, and I think it's undemocratic and wrong.

    And thanks for the good wishes!

  8. Bruce, thanks for your comment. Using an unusual narrative structure to create empathy is an interesting idea.

  9. I love this kind of discussion, Bonnie, and you've made some great points. I've written several columns about the literary vs. genre debate at both Criminal Brief and SleuthSayers (none of which were as well done as this one), and it's always a fascinating topic. Like Paul, I read some of both, and I'm not sure I agree with many of Kidd's and Castano's conclusions.

    Yes, best of luck to all you nominees! Looking forward to seeing you in New Orleans.

  10. Eleanor Cawood Jones10 September, 2016 11:07

    No one, no one can tell me that a good Dick Francis, William Kent Kreuger, Ellen Crosby, Blaize Clement, Susan Wittig Albert book (name a billion other mystery/thriller writers) doesn't create an extreme amount of empathy.
    And don't even get me started on Art Taylor's Del and Louise, which I just finished and which walked me through every emotion in my arsenal including a few I didn't know I had. Of course a good literary book creates empathy. Duh. Why do you think we read them in schools? But have you READ some of today' best mystery writers? The writing is incredible! The heroes (yes, there are heroes) are incredible!
    Smacks of college, where I was told reading literary is more important than genre fiction and thus didn't discover (empathetic) Steven King till later on in life. Just read what you like, read what you enjoy, read what you relate to. Jeepers.
    (Grump grump grump hey you kids get out of my yard.)
    I read this whole well-written article, but I'm not going to read the study as I smacks of silly season. Great job, B.k. Stevens! No wonder I love your short stories.

  11. John, I'd love to read your columns about literary and genre fiction--maybe you could give us some links (though I'm sure your columns will outshine mine). Obviously, I have plenty of reservations about Kidd and Castano's arguments, and I'm not always terribly impressed by the literary fiction I read. I do think the rules within genres can get too rigid sometimes--I think the rules for cozies, for examples, may be more restrictive than they need to be. I sometimes envy novelists who wrote 100 years or so ago, when there weren't so many rules and categories and people could just focus on trying to write good books.

  12. Eleanor, thanks for your comment. I share your enthusiasm for excellent mysteries, and I agree that there are plenty of them. And I wouldn't have read the whole study unless I'd decided to write about it. I'm sure it represents a lot of hard work, but I think it's based on some rather elitist assumptions, and I'm not convinced by the conclusions the authors draw. Trying to draw conclusions about the quality and effects of whole categories books is a risky business. My guess is that there are good books and not-so-good books in just about any category.

  13. Just chiming in again with a quick thanks to Eleanor for the shout-out! I'm so pleased to hear that you enjoyed and appreciated the book. :-)

  14. A lot of current literary fiction has an agenda rather than a plot. When I want to be preached to, I'll go to church. I like the idea of solving a puzzle in a mystery... in other words, working the mind. The fact the reader is solving that puzzle within someone else's neatly crafted world is a trip in itself. Nothing boring about experiencing the mean streets of a Noir tale or the intrigue of a spy novel. And as for flat characters... a well-written crime or spy story has lots of memorable characters - the good, the bad and the ugly. I know that was a western, another genre, but there are a ton of great old movies made from genre detective fiction and even a few Tom Clancy novels and Zane Grey westerns, etc. And the current crop of mystery authors and other genre fiction folk are creating great worlds to explore. Maybe those two scholars were confusing Hogwarts with Hogwash.

  15. As a writer, I try my hand at many genres of writing including mystery and literary. As a reader, I read many different types of books and stories. It broadens the mind. I won't declare one better than another. There are many talented people writing in different and varied genres.

  16. Gayle, thanks for your comment. "An agenda rather than a plot"--that's a phrase to remember. The lack of a real plot is one of the things that frustrate me about many literary novels. Not long ago, I read a much-praised literary novel that went on for several hundred pages with lots of talk, lots of agonizing, not much else. I remember thinking, "Well, sooner or later, SOMETHING has to happen. Maybe somebody will get hit by a truck." What do you know--at the end of the novel, somebody got hit by a truck. It didn't happen for a real reason, it wasn't the result of a choice someone made--it was just a way to end the novel, to resolve a situation by killing someone off. I suppose it was a way of saying life is random, we're all helpless victims, and the choices we make don't really matter. If I shared that view of life, I might be impressed. As it is, I prefer a good mystery in which one event causes another and the outcome usually depends primarily on the choices people make.

  17. Jacquie, I think you make some excellent observations. We all have our preferences, but in the end, appreciating what each book has to offer makes more sense than worrying about which kind of book might be better than another (though I admit I get a bit worked up people sneer at mysteries).

  18. Hi Bonnie,
    Thank you for your lucid take on this - to this genre reader's mind - "study." That this study was done in support of libraries is the only positive I'll take away.
    And further thanks for reacquainting me with Shelley's marvelous Defense of Poetry. Based on his argument, I found myself wondering how poetry readers would do in that empathy test.

  19. And I got 33. I wonder what Kidd and Castano scored?

    Anon makes an interesting and well-conceived point.

    I think Kidd and Castano overlook other aspects of genre fiction: Science fiction is about society and asks us to place ourselves in another world. Like GB Pool said, mysteries ask us to solve a puzzle and, while we’re at it, consider human motives. As you say, we mystery readers have to empathize or at least understand the sometimes horrible choices made by others.

    As for in-depth characters, I’m hard-pressed to think of a literary novel that can match the best of mystery writing. One of my complaints about Hemingway’s The Killers was its double punishment: the barely-there characterization and the not-at-all-there plot.

    And what if we happen to read Nabakov and maybe Walker?

    When you say you’re “neither bold enough nor well read enough to propose even tentative generalizations about literary and genre fiction,” I suspect your instinct and a nose for BS would prove more helpful!

    The photo of eyes in the article… Damn if they don’t look like Casey Anthony. So there!

  20. Thanks for your comment, Shari. Yes, if this study was intended to help libraries, I suppose we should cut it some slack. And I love that paragraph from Shelley's "Defense of Poetry"--it's one of the best statements I've seen about how literature can broaden our perspectives and help us change for the better. I'm not a huge fan of Shelley's poetry: I think much of it is too self-absorbed to live up to the standards he sets out in his "Defense." But some of his insights are dazzling (or, at least, seem dazzling to me).

  21. Leigh, you raise so many interesting questions that it's hard to know where to begin. So I'll just focus on what you say about science fiction and mysteries. I agree that different genres present readers with different sorts of challenges, and have different sorts of things to offer. As I mentioned in my post, I read an impressive urban fantasy novel recently. I almost never read fantasy of any sort--I never would have picked this book up, except that a friend wrote it. I was surprised by how much I liked it. I was expecting a fairy tale, but it was much more than that and, in my opinion, reflected valuable insights into human nature. I learned that I should try to be more open to a wider range of books, and not judge them by the shelves they occupy in the bookstore.

  22. Bonnie -- As you requested, here's a link to one of those literary vs. genre posts, from about four years ago:
    The Washed and the Unwashed

  23. Thanks for providing the link, John. I thoroughly enjoyed your column--I'm going to have to go back tomorrow and write down some of those quotations. And I, for one, am very glad you haven't quite grown up yet!

  24. This is a fantastic article, and such an important issue on so many levels. In my opinion, genre fiction is such an important part of really igniting people's imaginations. That study sounds absolutely ridiculous, and the scientists who conducted it should be ashamed of themselves for presenting it as anything other than silliness. I am very proud to be a genre author! :) And the quotation from Shelley is so profound, I was really moved by it. Thank you so much for your really insightful comments.

  25. Thanks for your comment, Miriam. I find Shelley's statement profound and moving, too. It's too easy for us to stay wrapped up in ourselves, or perhaps ourselves and our families or some other group with which we identify. Anything that can get us to care deeply about others--including others who are very different from us--almost has to do us some good and encourage us to be kinder and more just to each other.

    And by the way, welcome to the ranks of genre authors, and congratulations on the publication of TRUTHSIGHT! That novel definitely got me to identify with an unusually wide range of characters, including some I'd never meet anywhere else. (That is, I don't think I'm likely to meet them elsewhere. But you never know.)


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