Reading and empathy

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Sat Oct 12, 2013 5:02 pm Post

The Guardian has an article about how some forms of fiction teach empathy for others: ... athy-study


Have you ever felt that reading a good book makes you better able to connect with your fellow human beings? If so, the results of a new scientific study back you up, but only if your reading material is literary fiction – pulp fiction or non-fiction will not do.

Much of what they were researching hinges on a difference they see between writerly and readerly fiction:

Kidd and Castano, who have published their paper in Science, make a similar distinction between "writerly" writing and "readerly" writing to that made by Roland Barthes in his book on literary theory, The Pleasure of the Text. Mindful of the difficulties of determining what is literary fiction and what is not, certain of the literary extracts were chosen from the PEN/O Henry prize 2012 winners' anthology and the US National book awards finalists.

"Some writing is what you call 'writerly', you fill in the gaps and participate, and some is 'readerly', and you're entertained. We tend to see 'readerly' more in genre fiction like adventure, romance and thrillers, where the author dictates your experience as a reader. Literary [writerly] fiction lets you go into a new environment and you have to find your own way," Kidd said.

Transferring the experience of reading fiction into real-world situations was a natural leap, Kidd argued, because "the same psychological processes are used to navigate fiction and real relationships. Fiction is not just a simulator of a social experience, it is a social experience."

The Science article they published is here: ... 410da39519

What do you think? Would you classify your writing as writerly, requiring readers to participate, or readerly, dictating a reader's total experience.

I also wonder what my latest book is. It certainly deals very heavily with empathy, but does it force readers to understand what's happening to these kids for themselves? I'll have to think about that.

--Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

Aspiring Author
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Tue Oct 15, 2013 5:34 pm Post

Seems like genre fiction is "readerly," as you say, and literary fiction (a genre in itself, I know, with its own conventions, however much looser) more "writerly."

I'm going to write genre stuff under pseudonyms but literary fare under my legal name. I read both kinds of fiction, though lately I've been doing all genre. The best authors in either know how to satisfy reader expectations -- for genre, it's just enough characterization and other non-plot elements without sacrificing plot and pacing; for literary, it's not getting off on navel-gazing tangents/complaints-about-life and/or too esoteric a writing style as to alienate readers (though for some, like those who love Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, puzzle-like challenges are precisely the point of such reading).