Books

Book News: Study Says Reading (Literary) Fiction Can Boost Social Skills

The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

Jesmyn Ward won the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction for her book Salvage the Bones. i i

Jesmyn Ward won the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction for her book Salvage the Bones. Tina Fineberg/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Tina Fineberg/AP
Jesmyn Ward won the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction for her book Salvage the Bones.

Jesmyn Ward won the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction for her book Salvage the Bones.

Tina Fineberg/AP
  • Reading so-called literary fiction can temporarily increase someone's capacity for empathy, according to a study by David Kidd and Emanuele Castano published Thursday in the journal Science. Castano told NPR by email, "Our effects are probably short-lived, few hours to a day or two, I would say. But of course repeated exposure to literary fiction, and thus to this 'exercise' in mind-reading and mind-construction, can lead to more long-term, chronic effects." The authors distinguished between "literary fiction" — books written by award-winning authors including Jesmyn Ward, Don DeLillo, Anton Chekhov, Louise Erdrich, Tea Obreht and others; "popular fiction" — books by bestsellers including Danielle Steel and Gillian Flynn; and nonfiction works from Smithsonian Magazine. In an email exchange, the study's authors acknowledged that the boundary between "literary" and "popular" fiction can be blurry. But they say they "consider popular fiction to be more concerned with the plot than the characters. The characters themselves, we'd argue, tend to be more stereotyped, coherent, 'fully accounted for. Literary fiction focuses less on the plot, and more on the mental life of the characters, who are often "incomplete;" hence the need for the reader to make an effort to infer what their intentions, emotions, thoughts, motivations are." Ward, whose novel Salvage the Bones was among the works that researchers found boosted emotional intelligence, said in a phone interview with NPR: "If that's true, then that's exactly what I want to happen when I write. Part of the reason that I write about what I write about is that the people I grew up with, poor people and black people, are underrepresented in fiction. So it's amazing to me that a study like this shows that people are seeing these characters and can empathize with them and sympathize with them. It makes me feel like what I'm trying to do is working."
  • France's lower house of parliament has passed a bill that seeks to protect independent bookstores by banning Amazon and other online retailers from providing free shipping when combined with discounted prices. The BBC quotes culture minister Aurélie Filippetti, who said that Amazon "slashes prices to get a foothold in markets only to raise them once they have established a virtual monopoly." The bill now moves to the Senate, where it is also expected to pass.
  • On a slightly different note, New York Magazine interviews a pair of best friends making a living writing dinosaur erotica: "If I were to describe us both in a nutshell, I would basically say we were nice, quiet girls who have really warped imaginations."
  • The title story from Ben Marcus' forthcoming collection Leaving the Sea is printed in the latest issue of Tin House: "It was before I discovered I could survive on potatoes and salted water, before my wife started going for long walks into the thicket, before our house started leaning, started hissing when the wind came up after sunset, a house no different from a gut-shot animal listing into the woods, a woods no different from a spray of wire bursting through the earth, an earth no different from a leaking sack of water, soft in the middle and made of mush..."
  • The classicist and poet Anne Carson spoke about her books Autobiography of Red and Red Doc>, which draw heavily on classical myth, in a rare interview with the BBC4 radio show Start the Week. The interviewer asked, "Why did you need this superficial link with the classics? Why go back to the classics rather than just writing a story fresh?" Carson answered, "Well, it wasn't superficial. That's the thing. It was the essence. The story is what is superficial. Stories all are. They're just a way of finding something to say when you want to talk, and we all want to talk."

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