Academics scandalised: romance fiction outperforms "literary fiction"

By Laura Vivanco on

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.

Anonymous (not verified)

Tuesday, 20 June, 2017

I mean, why couldn't romance readers be socially intelligent? 


I've read research about experience-taking during reading leading to more empathy for diverse characters too.

Indeed: instead of deciding that romance readers are weak and "susceptible" why not view us as readers who are socially intelligent and then look at the extent to which we choose to read romance (a genre which is all about social relationships) because of this (i.e. correlation) and to what extent romance may help produce it (i.e. causation)?

The authors of this paper mention empathy in relation to diversity:

In Nussbaum’s moral philosophy, especially as we see in Poetic Justice, perhaps the most obvious payoff is defined by those literary experiences in which “we identify sympathetically with members of marginalized or oppressed groups within our own society, learning both to see the world, for a time, through their eyes and then reflecting as spectators on the meaning of what we have seen” (Poetic Justice, 92). Of course, and even given the originality of the syncretic thinking which undergirds it, there is nothing really new about such a proposition—Abraham Lincoln took it for granted when he complimented Harriet Beecher Stowe as a prime mover of the war against slavery, and generations of social-consciousness novelists (e.g., Dickens, Zola, Sinclair, Steinbeck, Wright, etc.) have presumed as much even in the act of taking up their pens. What is new, as the research we have discussed suggests, is an emerging scientific consensus which can be marshalled in the service of reading interventions designed to combat prejudicial stereotypes. Moreover, it would appear that even novels whose subject matter is rather remote from such explicit intent may also have a comparable effect: a widely reported recent study in Italy, which virtually replicated Nussbaum’s success with Native Son but with Harry Potter as the text (Vezzali et al.), showed that children who identified strongly with Harry (a Dickensian orphan with strong sympathies for other outgroup characters in the novels) was positively correlated, over the 8-week course of the experiment, with improved measures of sympathy for the plight of marginalized “others” such as homosexuals and immigrants. (255)