November 1, 2013

'Worthy' books and reading snobbery

In the past few weeks, two articles about reading have frequent appearances in my blog feeds, Facebook newsfeed and Twitter feed: Neil Gaiman's lecture on Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming and reports about this research proving that Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind (the full study is only available to subscribers but the New York Times ran a more easily digestible article).

Both Gaiman and the academic researchers (Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd) make the point that reading fiction increases empathy. "You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You're being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you're going to be slightly changed," said Gaiman of reading prose fiction.

The researchers agree, but, their research results indicate, only if this fiction is literary. Research participants given popular fiction, non-fiction or nothing to read did not perform as highly in their quantative test of empathy (which included tasks such as 'reading' a person's emotional state from a photograph of their eyes). The Times sums up the reasons for the results thusly: "literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity." To drive the divide between 'high' and 'low' fiction home, the NYT article continues, "popular fiction readers made as many mistakes as people who read nothing." Subtext: reading novels that are not 'literary' is as 'bad' as not reading at all.

What the what?? [pause to take a few deep, calming breaths]

I am a reader and, when I have to be, a smart one at that. I studied 3 Unit English for my HSC. I completed a Communications degree. I read many, many worthy books, both because I was being graded on my responses to them and because I thought it made me sound smarter at parties. I can't tell you much about those novels now though, because I read them for the sake of having read them, not because I enjoyed them. I used them for essays, exams and literary chat-up opportunities and then promptly forgot pretty much every detail except the elements that made me detest them most. (See: Fanny Price's delicate constitution in Mansfield Park, Daisy's endless whining in The Great Gatsby. Far from making me more empathetic, these characters made me burn with a rage that left me incapable of caring about their personal struggles.)

I can't argue with the researchers' findings. I'm sure the study was conducted in a controlled and ethical manner and quantative results are more objectively analysed than qualitative ones. But, as someone who supports Gaiman's position that there is no bad reading for children, I fear that the findings of this study will be used as a reason (excuse) to stuff school reading lists full of 'worthy' tomes that 'improve the mind' rather than more accessible popular fiction that readers may actually enjoy.

A few years ago I was on a panel discussing YA and reading. One of the other authors on the panel was particularly (and very humourously) disparaging of the popularity of sparkly vampires, well-built werewolves and the girls who loved them. I'm no fan of paranormal romance, but the laughter and enthusiastic nodding of many of the adults in the audience (and the audience was 98% adult; young people don't come to these events unless they're diehard fans of someone on the panel) got my hackles up and I found myself doing something I never thought I would: defending Twilight. Well, not Twilight specifcially, since I struggled to finish it, but Twilight fans' right to enjoy what they read and to read what they enjoy.

It seems ridiculous to me that we spend almost as much time debating what young people read as we do despairing that they don't read more. Surely, as Gaiman says, the first step to making enthusiastic readers is to give them books they are more likely to enjoy than trudge through as an exercise in self-betterment (or better still, let them choose books for themselves).

In fact, I'd go one further and say there's no bad reading for anyone, not just young readers. I have been a far more satisfied and prolific reader since I stopped caring what other people think of my book choices and just read what I like (mainly YA with some chick lit and popular contemporary fiction thrown in, and a small smattering of contemporary literary fiction if it's recommended by readers whose opinions I really trust). There are far too many books I want to read to waste precious reading time on the ones I should.

Whether it's Anna Karenina, Anne of Green Gables or the next instalment of Ana Steele, my response to both articles is the same: read what you enjoy and stuff what other people think.

(And here's yet another article on the subject, from today's Age: Does reading fiction make you a better, less self-absorbed person?)

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