Monday Miscellany: Big Literary News Edition

Meet Alice Munro, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

Cover: Dear LifeThe big literary news of last week was the announcement of Canadian writer Alice Munro as recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Munro is generally considered to be the current master of the short-fiction form.

The announcement generated a lot of articles about Munro’s life of literary accomplishments. Here are some of the most useful that serve as a primer of Alice Munro’s life and works.

A Beginner’s Guide to Alice Munro

Back in July 2012, to celebrate the publication of Munro’s most recent book, Dear Life, Ben Dolnick, a self-proclaimed Alice Munro fanatic, offered this overview at The Millions:

Considering which of Alice Munro’s stories to read can feel something like considering what to eat from an enormous box of chocolates. There are an overwhelming number of choices, many of which have disconcertingly similar appearances — and, while you’re very likely to choose something delicious, there is the slight but real possibility of finding yourself stuck with, say, raspberry ganache.

A Nobel reading list: Essential Alice Munro books

From USA Today:

Canadian writer Alice Munro, “master of the contemporary short story,” has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for her body of work. Here is a list of books by the 82-year-old author, who recently said she was retiring from writing:

From the Archive: From fact to fiction

The Montreal Gazette reprinted this article from 2005:

The events of Alice Munro’s life – an Ontario girlhood, university, marriage and a move to the West Coast, motherhood, the breakup of the marriage and a move back east – are the stuff of fiction (hers) and the stuff of life, a life laid bare in Robert Thacker’s new biography, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives.


Reading Literary Fiction Increases Empathy

woman reading

The other recent event of literary interest is the release of findings of a new study suggesting that reading literary fiction increases empathy, or the ability to understand why people act as they do.The research was conducted by a professor and a graduate student from the New School for Social Research in New York City. Here’s what the institution says in its press release:

Ph.D. candidate David Comer Kidd and his advisor, professor of psychology Emanuele Castano performed five experiments to measure the effect of reading literary fiction on participants’ Theory of Mind (ToM), the complex social skill of “mind-reading” to understand others’ mental states. Their paper, which appears in the Oct. 3 issue of Science is entitled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.”

In their experiments the researchers studied three different types of written material:

To choose texts for their study, Kidd and Castano relied on expert evaluations to define three types of writing: literary fiction, popular fiction, and nonfiction. Literary fiction works were represented by excerpts from recent National Book Award finalists or winners of the 2012 PEN/O. Henry Prize for short fiction; popular fiction works were drawn from Amazon.com bestsellers or an anthology of recent popular fiction; and non-fiction works were selected from Smithsonian Magazine.

And the results of the several experiments were consistent:

Across the five experiments, Kidd and Castano found that participants who were assigned to read literary fiction performed significantly better on the ToM [theory of mind] tests than did participants assigned to the other experimental groups, who did not differ from one another.

The study shows that not just any fiction is effective in fostering ToM, rather the literary quality of the fiction is the determining factor. The literary texts used in the experiments had vastly different content and subject matter, but all produced similarly high ToM results.

The researchers’ discussion of the results suggests the following explanation:

Kidd and Castano suggest that the reason for literary fiction’s impact on ToM is a direct result of the ways in which it involves the reader. Unlike popular fiction, literary fiction requires intellectual engagement and creative thought from its readers. “Features of the modern literary novel set it apart from most bestselling thrillers or romances. Through the use of […] stylistic devices, literary fiction defamiliarizes its readers,” Kidd and Castano write. “Just as in real life, the worlds of literary fiction are replete with complicated individuals whose inner lives are rarely easily discerned but warrant exploration.”

Lots of news outlets jumped on this story, eager to give it their own spin. Here are some of the more interesting offerings.

Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy

Scientific American chose this emphasis:

How important is reading fiction in socializing school children? Researchers at The New School in New York City have found evidence that literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling.

For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov

Pam Belluck, writing in The New York Times, chose this approach:

Say you are getting ready for a blind date or a job interview. What should you do? Besides shower and shave, of course, it turns out you should read — but not just anything. Something by Chekhov or Alice Munro will help you navigate new social territory better than a potboiler by Danielle Steel.

That is the conclusion of a study published Thursday in the journal Science. It found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.

Want To Read Others’ Thoughts? Try Reading Literary Fiction

For National Public Radio (NPR), Nell Greenfieldboyce concluded:

This study could be a first step toward a better understanding of how the arts influence how we think, says David Comer Kidd, a graduate student who coauthored the study with Castano.

“We’re having a lot of debates right now about the value of the arts, the value of the humanities,” Kidd says. “Municipalities are facing budget cuts and there are questions about why are we supporting these libraries. And one thing that’s noticeably absent from a lot of these debates is empirical evidence.”

Book News: Reading Fiction May Boost Empathy, and Other Stories from the Week

In a blog post for The New Yorker, Rachel Arons also speculated about the implications of the research:

Though the study leaves many questions unanswered—like how “literary” the fiction has to be to have an impact, or how long the empathy boost lasts—the researchers hope that studies like this one, which demonstrate the quantifiable benefits of reading literature, could have an impact on curriculum design in schools. (The Common Core standards have attracted criticism for emphasizing nonfiction over literature.)