Reading literary fiction is beneficial. It makes people more empathetic, socially perceptive and emotionally intelligent. That’s what a study entitled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” published in Science, the academic journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, shows. The research also indicates that reading popular fiction or serious non-fiction does not produce the same effects.
So what is literary fiction? It’s serious fiction, like the classics. Literary classics are those of recognized and established value. Think books by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, the Brontës, Wilkie Collins, Aphra Behn, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell, Albert Camus, Stefan Zweig, Miguel de Cervantes, Vladimir Nabokov, V. S. Naipaul, Kahlil Gibran, Chinua Achebe, and many, many others. These works are more concerned with expressions of life, truth and artistry, and with character development, than with plot. In addition, this fiction is considered masterful, so particularly well written and pleasureful to read.
Why is literary fiction beneficial? The researchers believe it’s because this type of fiction usually leaves more to the imagination, with readers caught up in detailed descriptions, nuances and complexity. Social commentary and the human condition take center stage. The characters and their lives are generally portrayed in greater detail than in popular fiction where the plot drives the interest. The particular angles adopted in literary fiction and the additional information imparted allow the reader to delve into the characters more, infer more about them and empathize with them to a greater extent. On the whole, the reader participates more in the story, concentrating less on the action.
So if you have some free time and don’t know what to do, curl up with Germinal by Emile Zola, for example. You won’t be killing time, you’ll be practising empathy and understanding by discerning the thoughts and feelings of others.