I don't have any particular insights into whether or not reading fiction encourages empathy but Charles Duncan, Georgene Bess-Montgomery and Viktor Osinubi believe evidence has been
accumulating for two decades in the form of convergent lines of research anchored respectively in neurobiology and cognitive psychology, which demonstrate how and why reading fiction enhances social intelligence and cognitive empathy by a process which might be called “biomimesis" (245)
One such piece of research sought to discover whether there was a "possible correlation between the literary quality of a fictional text and its potential to enhance social intelligence" (250). However, Duncan et al. thought the research might well be flawed due to the fact that “literary fiction” had been defined
in terms of its power to “defamiliarize” readers, “unsettle their expectations,” and force them to “search for meanings among a spectrum of possible meanings” (Kidd & Coastano, 377). Not only would such a definition, carried to its logical terminus, confine the greatest rewards of reading fiction to an intellectual elite with a taste for the avant-garde, it also would exclude a vast body of fiction of undeniable merit (or even greatness) which nonetheless positions the reader as a “subject” to be entertained as well as intellectually stimulated. (251)
They note that another study
suggests that rather than interrogate the “literary” quality of the text, we might do better to interrogate the quality of the reader’s engagement with the text, which in turn presumes the author’s craft as a storyteller much more than the status of the text as a work of art. (252)
In this study,
Amazingly enough, the highest RME [Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, a test of "social intelligence"] scores were manifested by readers whose ART [Author Recognition Test] scores suggested a clear preference for Romance fiction—an outcome which would seem almost scandalous, at least until we remind ourselves that Romance novels succeed or fail to the extent that they involve readers in a deeply vicarious experience, utilizing characters with whom a susceptible reader can easily identify.
So, it seems "almost scandalous" to suggest that romance fiction might be more beneficial in some ways than literary fiction and Charles Duncan, Georgene Bess-Montgomery and Viktor Osinubi therefore scrambled to ascribe this to romance readers being "susceptible." Hmm. Why couldn't they just accept that many romance authors are good storytellers who write engaging works of fiction?
Duncan, Charles, Georgene Bess-Montgomery and Viktor Osinubi, 2017. "Why Martha Nussbaum is Right: The Empirical Case for the Value of Reading and Teaching Fiction." Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 19.2: 242-259.