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.
Well stated, my friend. Thanks, as always, for your fine writing . . . and generosity.
Just stating the truth, Neil. “Sanctuary” is such a good example of a nonfiction book that elicits empathy in readers.
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Right on, Susan. Excellent article.
Nonfiction has such treasures in store for readers.
Craig Child in The Secret Knowledge of Water and The Animal Dialogues: Uncommon Encounters in the Wild have excellent narrative and exquisite description of natural settings. Along with raising environmental concerns, it provides psychological insight into living.
And Biographies provide excellent reading material. Pat Conroy details how his reading helped shape his life. So many other nonfiction books have touched my life. Maybe I should blog about some of them.
As a teacher I am concerned that we spend too much time on fiction and “creative” writing and not enough time on nonfiction and expository writing-both of which can be quite creative. What will students’ reading and writing in adult life consist of in the work environment? Nonfiction.
“psychological insight into living.” I like that, Janice. Thanks for commenting.
Amen, sistah! AMEN!
Thanks, Cathie. I just went to your web site and notice that you work with Alzheimer’s caregivers. My mother has Alzheimer’s. She’s 83, and in a nursing home, so I’m not her primary caregiver at this point, but it was a bumpy road for a few years. I’m sure it’s still bumpy for her, but she seems content in her world, which gets smaller all the time. Thanks for all you do!
I applaud you, Susan! Well said!
May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews, videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.
Also, I invite you to post a link to your article about empathy to our Empathy Center Facebook page.
Yes! This should be a no-brainer, but hey, I’ll second the motion. Reading narratives of any kind that are written with skill and heart will elicit compassion and create new depths of understanding. We know this because so many of us have experienced its truth. The key, though, is in getting readers to fully engage–to become active readers–as I first heard from William Heyen in his workshops. He would begin his classes with moments of quiet and help us to notice what stillness felt like. We desperately need that–the permission we give ourselves to be still and read.
Yes. And don’t you think that nonfiction engages readers in a way that engenders deeper understanding? I love what Heyen suggests in his workshops–good idea. Thanks for reading, and commenting.
Set’em straight, Susan. Way to go.
Thanks, Shirley. How’s your memoir coming along?
Good catch, Susan. Research design has a lot to do with outcomes, and you caught a flaw in this design, I do believe.
Clearly and concisely written, Susan. Well thought. Applause and gratitude.
[…] “Apples to Apples, Please: Narrative Nonfiction and Empathy,” Susan Cushman, guest post on Brevity: Huzzah to Susan for arguing a nonfiction story well told has equal literary value to a fictional story well told. […]
So glad you brought this to our attention. Hard to believe they left memoir out of a study on how reading literature can evoke empathy. I hope you do contact them. I keep saying to my grad students (future teachers of writing) that good writing is good writing. I believe we learn more about good writing, and about our selves/the world, when we don’t think about prose in terms of fiction/non. Anyways, thanks for this post!
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