"Literary" vs. "popular" fiction again

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In "Annals of overgeneralization" (10/8/2013), I criticized a paper by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, "Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind", Science 10/3/2013. My complaint was that they drew conclusions about the effects of  reading three general categories of texts — "literary fiction", "popular fiction" and non-fiction —  based on experiments involved a small sample from each category, selected by the authors as in their opinion representative of the genre.

But you probably won't be surprised to learn that a replication attempt using exactly the same texts, performed by three separate research groups working in parallel,  failed to replicate Kidd and Castano's results.

The paper reporting this replication failure has just appeared:  Maria Eugenia Panero, Deena Skolnick Weisberg, Jessica Black, Thalia R. Goldstein, Jennifer L. Barnes, Hiram Brownell, and Ellen Winner, "Does Reading a Single Passage of Literary Fiction Really Improve Theory of Mind? An Attempt at Replication", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 9/19/2016:

Fiction simulates the social world and invites us into the minds of characters. This has led various researchers to suggest that reading fiction improves our understanding of others’ cognitive and emotional states. Kidd and Castano (2013) received a great deal of attention by providing support for this claim. Their article reported that reading segments of literary fiction (but not popular fiction or nonfiction) immediately and significantly improved performance on the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (RMET), an advanced theory-of-mind test. Here we report a replication attempt by 3 independent research groups, with 792 participants randomly assigned to 1 of 4 conditions (literary fiction, popular fiction, nonfiction, and no reading). In contrast to Kidd and Castano (2013), we found no significant advantage in RMET scores for literary fiction compared to any of the other conditions. However, as in Kidd and Castano and previous research, the Author Recognition Test, a measure of lifetime exposure to fiction, consistently predicted RMET scores across conditions. We conclude that the most plausible link between reading fiction and theory of mind is either that individuals with strong theory of mind are drawn to fiction and/or that a lifetime of reading gradually strengthens theory of mind, but other variables, such as verbal ability, may also be at play.

The paper indicates that "Maria Eugenia Panero, Deena Skolnick Weisberg, and Jessica Black are joint first authors".

You should read the whole paper — if your library doesn't have a subscription to the journal, you might try sci-hub.bz — but here are two key figures. First, the estimated effects of various examples of "literary fiction":

And second, the estimated effects of various examples of "popular fiction":

The authors have posted their data on the Open Science Framework.



  1. Gwen Katz said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 11:04 am

    Have there been any advances in the past two years towards discovering what literary fiction actually is?

  2. Seth Edenbaum said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 11:37 am

    Literary fiction at its best is not cerebral. It's immersive, while simultaneously keeping you aware of the tricks that are sucking you in. It seduces you and tells you you're being seduced. Some people find the ambiguity pleasurable.

    "Literary" fiction fucks with your head. It's the description in the first person before, during, and after a priest's drunken night with a drag queen, or the time you shot your best friend in the face. The only "pulp" that get much respect by this model is detective fiction, which pulls you in to imagining morally awkward situations that usually are never fully resolved.

    Science fiction, the fiction of economists, philosophers, and engineers, is the fiction of propositions and resolutions, problem solving, fiction for geeks, for preadolescent boys and those who prefer the time of precocious youth, before the discovery of the moral reality of other people sex and death. Engineers are optimists. Humanists are pessimists.

    [(myl) It seems you've never read any of the non-literary genres that you apparently dislike so much, because your description of what "literary" fiction does seems like a rather good fit to celebrated authors like Ursula LeGuin or William Gibson or N.K. Jemisin or …]

    "Literary fiction" is descriptive as a form and as a term. It's not prescriptive. Any text that functions in the way I've described has "literary" value. Reading Weber for the self-description of a man with a "shell as hard as steel" a brilliant but still petty bureaucrat, is reading Weber as "literature".

    Socratic irony is the irony of contempt for others. Literary irony is ironic self-awareness even if it's damning. It's the irony of Euripides.

    Pretty basic stuff unless you're a geek.

    [(myl) You seem oddly and unironically angry. Why?]

  3. Morten Jonsson said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 11:48 am

    I've always seen literary fiction as just a genre among all the other genres. It has its own particular conventions, expectations, and pleasures to offer, just as any genre does. But it's the only one that gets to claim it improves its readers' minds. The same way those Baby Mozart videos have inspired a generation of little geniuses, I suppose.

  4. Seth Edenbaum said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 12:45 pm

    Literary fiction is whatever ages well. If it's still read 200 years after it's published it's read as literature and not as artifact. If Jewish secular socialists write about Michelangelo it's not out of some loyalty to Rome.
    Some people try for art and produce artifacts. Others do the reverse: they enjoy producing what they think is garbage but it lasts.

    Anti-intellectualism is not a good answer to pretension. When someone tells me art is nothing but subjective I ask them to define Justice.

  5. Joe said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 12:54 pm

    @Seth Edenbaum: Wut?

  6. B.S. Detector said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 1:05 pm

    Anti-intellectualism I'm not seeing here. Anti-pretentiousness, yes. Anti-pretentiousness is a super answer to public masturbation.

  7. Morten Jonsson said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 1:17 pm

    @Seth Edenbaum: Literature and literary fiction aren't necessarily the same thing; the latter is more a marketing description than a measure of value. And "whatever ages well" is the classical definition of great art, but it isn't really very helpful; works survive, or don't, for all sorts of reasons that might have nothing to do with any intrinsic worth.

  8. Seth Edenbaum said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 1:34 pm

    Until the last few decades with the rise of geek and tech culture, lit departments looked down on speculative and science fiction.
    Academic fans of speculative fiction come from the fields I listed above, fields that see themselves as dealing in truths etc. Philosophers have always looked down on "fiction". and internet culture especially in the anglosphere self-selects for tech.

    "works survive, or don't, for all sorts of reasons that might have nothing to do with any intrinsic worth."
    No more or less for fiction than for history or philosophy.

  9. Seth Edenbaum said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 1:37 pm

    Speculative fiction is a modern invention, continuing from theological and philosophical interests as opposed to "merely" literary ones.
    Plato wanted to ban poets right?

  10. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 2:05 pm

    At one time literary fiction actually was a sales category: bookshops had one set of shelves for 'fiction', which was the literary stuff, and one for 'popular fiction' (as well as the shelves for the well-defined genres, science fiction, crime etc.). I haven't seen this for a while, though; literary and popular works have to stand together. To discover whether a work is literary I think you have to look at how seriously critics treat it, though that obviously leaves room for a lot of fuzziness.

  11. Gwen Katz said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 2:22 pm

    At one time literary fiction actually was a sales category: bookshops had one set of shelves for 'fiction', which was the literary stuff, and one for 'popular fiction' (as well as the shelves for the well-defined genres, science fiction, crime etc.).

    This is still true on the back end. Authors pitch books to agents and editors as either "literary fiction" or "commercial fiction" (or "upmarket fiction" if you're somewhere in between). But it's a very squishy designation that has as much to do with how you want to be marketed as with what the book is like.

  12. Seth Edenbaum said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 4:21 pm

    I wish I could embed the ngram for "literary fiction". It first appears in the digitized record as of now, around 1800, and goes through the roof after 1960. Was Chaucer a highbrow in his day? Shakespeare? How about Robert Burns? Dashiell Hammett's now in the Library of America (my father may have a bit to do with that)
    but then so is Kurt Vonnegut. Nothing's perfect.

  13. Bill Benzon said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 5:04 pm

    FWIW, science fiction was being studied and taught in the academy by the 1970s. By that time Samuel Delaney had had a residency at SUNY Buffalo and when I chose to teach science fiction in one of my courses at RPI in the late 70s/early80s no one blinked.

  14. Chris C. said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 5:15 pm

    @Andrew — At one time? Many bookshops still do that, only "fiction" is now the catch-all for popular fiction not sorted by subgenre, and "literature" is its own section.

    At least that's how Borders did it not so long ago.

  15. Seth Edenbaum said,

    September 21, 2016 @ 6:09 pm

    "FWIW, science fiction was being studied and taught in the academy by the 1970s."

    And this is the result [google it]:
    Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy
    "This volume will convince readers that the swift ascent of the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons to worldwide popularity in the 1970s and 1980s is “the most exciting event in popular culture since the invention of the motion picture."

    I read that and laugh.

    Bill Benzon promotes a designers' view of culture and cultural "progress". By his logic the Bauhaus was or must have been a high point in 20th century culture. It wasn't. It pales before Hollywood of the same era, as it pales before Jean Vigo and Jean Renoir. No historian would deny it, though philosophers can dream.

    Benzon: "Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities"

    I posted a response which was accepted by moderators and pulled 8 hours later. I saved it here.


    In the unending battle between philosophers and historians, historians win every time.

    [(myl) The topics here are replicability, reading, and theory of mind skills, not your pet (and clearly very complex) genre peeves. Please take them elsewhere.]

  16. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    September 22, 2016 @ 3:58 pm

    Chris C: This may be a difference between UK and US practice. In my experience 'literature' means books about literature, or perhaps classic texts with notes, rather than contemporary fiction.

  17. bill. said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 8:21 am

    Neal Stephenson, once separated writers into Dante (academic) and Beowulf (commercial) camps.

    To set it up, a brief anecdote: a while back, I went to a writers' conference. I was making chitchat with another writer, a critically acclaimed literary novelist who taught at a university. She had never heard of me. After we'd exchanged a bit of of small talk, she asked me "And where do you teach?" just as naturally as one Slashdotter would ask another "And which distro do you use?"

    I was taken aback. "I don't teach anywhere," I said.

    Her turn to be taken aback. "Then what do you do?"

    "I'm…a writer," I said. Which admittedly was a stupid thing to say, since she already knew that.

    "Yes, but what do you do?"

    I couldn't think of how to answer the question—I'd already answered it!

    "You can't make a living out of being a writer, so how do you make money?" she tried.

    "From…being a writer," I stammered.

    At this point she finally got it, and her whole affect changed. She wasn't snobbish about it. But it was obvious that, in her mind, the sort of writer who actually made a living from it was an entirely different creature from the sort she generally associated with.

    And once I got over the excruciating awkwardness of this conversation, I began to think she was right in thinking so. One way to classify artists is by to whom they are accountable.
    Like all tricks for dividing people into two groups, this is simplistic, and needs to be taken with a grain of salt. But there is a cultural difference between these two types of writers, rooted in to whom they are accountable, and it explains what MosesJones is complaining about. Beowulf writers and Dante writers appear to have the same job, but in fact there is a quite radical difference between them—hence the odd conversation that I had with my fellow author at the writer's conference. Because she'd never heard of me, she made the quite reasonable assumption that I was a Dante writer—one so new or obscure that she'd never seen me mentioned in a journal of literary criticism, and never bumped into me at a conference. Therefore, I couldn't be making any money at it. Therefore, I was most likely teaching somewhere. All perfectly logical. In order to set her straight, I had to let her know that the reason she'd never heard of me was because I was famous. […]

  18. Rube said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 10:23 am

    @bill. "the reason she'd never heard of me was because I was famous" is one of the best things I've read in a long time.

  19. Seth Edenbaum said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 11:38 am

    Erwin Panofsky was an art historian of the Renaissance, but he's remembered also for one essay on film
    From "Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures." from1936, expanded later.

    "While it is true that commercial art is always in danger of ending up as a prostitute, it is equally true that noncommercial art is always in danger of ending up as an old maid. Non commercial art has given us Seurat's "Grande Jatte" and Shakespeare's sonnets, but also much that is esoteric to the point of incommunicability. Conversely, commercial art has given us much that is vulgar or snobbish (two aspects of the same thing) to the point of loathsomeness, but also Durer's prints and Shakespeare's plays. For, we must not forget that Durer's prints were partly made on commission and partly intended to be sold in the open market; and that Shakespeare's plays -in contrast to the earlier masques and intermezzi which were produced at court by aristocratic amateurs and could afford to be so incomprehensible that even those who described them in printed monographs occasionally failed to grasp their intended significance— were meant to appeal, and did appeal, not only to the select few but also to everyone who was prepared to pay a shilling for admission.
    It is this requirement of communicability that makes commercial art more vital than noncommercial, and therefore potentially much more effective for better or for worse."

    A few pages earlier:
    "Today there is no denying that narrative films are not only “art”—not often good art, to be sure, but this applies to other media as well—but also, besides architecture, cartooning and “commercial design,” the only visual art entirely alive."

  20. Seth Edenbaum said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 11:51 am

    Plenty of "serious" writers don't teach, or made money writing, from books or as journalists. Was Hemingway "serious"? Faulkner made a living, though he worked on Hollywood screenplays too. What's Pynchon's day job? The slashdot story is reverse snobbery.

  21. tangent said,

    September 23, 2016 @ 10:52 pm

    Criminy, so much genre peeving. Did this get linked from somewhere?

    Now, if they broke out their author recognition metric by genre, to see which types of readers show higher RMET scores, that might give us real grounds for genre wars, instead of going all unrelated to the article.

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