Apples to Apples, Please: Narrative Nonfiction and Empathy

October 25, 2011 § 19 Comments

A guest post from essayist Susan Cushman:

In AARP the Magazine‘s September/October issue, Tina Adler wrote, “Reading fiction can make you more compassionate. In a study at York University in Toronto, fiction readers not only scored higher on an empathy test than nonfiction readers–but the more fiction they had read, the higher their scores….”

The only problem is, the researchers didn’t compare apples with apples—they compared narrative fiction with expository nonfiction. That would be like doing a study to prove that reading memoir improves social skills better than reading journalistic or scientific nonfiction. Too much ado about semantics here? I don’t think so. Let’s look at a few definitions.

Expository nonfiction basically gives facts about what something is or means, who someone is, or how something works. Its goal is to explain, not to inspire or to elicit an emotional response.

In narrative fiction the author uses a narrative voice to tell a story. Done well, it engages the reader on many levels—emotional, psychological, social—and yes, as the York University study showed, a regular diet of such literature could certainly create empathy in its readers.

But so can narrative nonfiction, the genre the study chose to leave out. A narrative, after all, is a story, a series of events told through the narrator or through a character, depending upon the narrative mode and voice chosen to impart the story. Sometimes this is called literary nonfiction, and of course, creative nonfiction, which uses all the tools of the fiction writer to tell a true story.

York University researcher Raymond Mar, Ph.D. claims that “Reading fiction helps you understand how people think and feel…. fiction readers have these added social skills because they can imagine themselves in stories (as opposed to nonfiction readers) then transfer that empathy to real life.”

And yet the subjects in the study weren’t given the opportunity to read literary or creative nonfiction. Imagine what would have happened if they had been given Rebecca Skloot’s narrative nonfiction book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and learned about a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her permission for medical research, when her family couldn’t afford the medical care they needed. Would that have evoked compassion in the readers?

Or what if they had been asked to read Neil White’s memoir, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, where they would have learned about how the eighteen months White spent in a federal prison (for kiting checks) that also housed the last leprosy colony in the United States changed him forever.

Wouldn’t Mar’s subjects have scored as high on the empathy tests if they had been allowed to read Lit, Mary Karr’s gritty memoir of getting sober and finding God? How would reading Ron Hall and Denver Moore’s Same Kind of Different as Me have affected those readers?

Adler’s article, “Sharpen Your Social Skills: A love for literature has surprising benefits” ends with these words: “Researchers are now studying whether particular types of novels generate empathy more than others. Until they know, read the fiction you favor.”

And yet again, their study was limited to narrative fiction. (And who know what the quality of that fiction was, compared to the quality of the nonfiction books the subjects were given.) It will be interesting to see what happens if they decide to compare, say, commercial to literary fiction, or sci-fi to romance novels. Maybe I’ll write them a letter and ask if they’ve thought about including memoir or other forms of creative nonfiction in their study. A literary novel vs. a literary memoir—now that would be apples to apples.


Susan Cushman has nine published essays, including “Blocked,” which was a finalist in the Santa Fe Writers Project 2008 literary awards. Her essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shine,” will be included in Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality (University of Alabama Press) to be released in spring, 2012. Susan was co-director of the 2010 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference and director of the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop.  Her novel-in-progress, Cherry Bomb, made the short list in the 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. You can follow her on her personal blog, Pen and Palette.

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