This past Friday, October 4, NPR’s All Things Considered reported on research findings from a Science journal study, which concluded that reading “highbrow” literary fiction (as opposed to popular fiction or nonfiction) gave individuals greater powers of social perception. Put simply, people who read Louise Erdrich instead of Danielle Steel have a better chance of
being able to “read” people as well. Scientists reviewing the findings suggested that this may be the case in part because of the character-driven narrative arcs of literary fiction, as opposed to the plot-driven narratives present in popular fiction. When you read popular fiction, you keep turning the pages to see what is going to happen next; when you read literary fiction, you keep turning the pages to learn more about conflicted and complex characters.

While the findings of the study itself were pretty interesting (not to mention a bit of an ego inflater for those who do choose Erdrich over Steel), what really caught my attention was the specifications of “literary” and “popular” fiction. Even the scientists who conducted the study admitted that “it’s hard to precisely define ‘literary’ fiction.” Sure, it’s easy to pick out some key differences between the two writers featured in the study, but when you put any two works of fiction side by side, the task will likely prove to be more difficult.

This is an issue that we debate with every new acquisition at Ooligan Press, something that publishers everywhere have to think about. One of our most recent acquisitions, a currently untitled work by Karelia Stetz-Waters, proved especially tricky to categorize, with students going back and forth between literary fiction and young adult fiction (and what about that ambiguous “new adult” category we keep hearing about?) for months, and although we have tentatively decided that the manuscript is young adult, we are still debating.

And that’s what I guess my point is: for the most part, these categories are primarily a marketing construct. Just because a work of fiction is popular doesn’t mean that there aren’t some elements of higher literary writing at play, and vice versa. Categories are fluid, subjective, and sometimes arbitrary, based on how a publisher chooses to market a book. What might not speak on a deeper level to one reader may resonate very strongly with another. While the works employed in the aforementioned study (Erdrich’s The Round House and Steel’s The Sins of the Mother) have some fairly stark differences, it’s important to remember that if a piece moves you, you’ll probably garner some benefits from having read it. And, of course, the sheer pleasure of reading is its own reward. Even the scientists conducting the study make clear that they did not want their results to be seen as a condemnation of so-called popular fiction. Ultimately, maybe what you read isn’t as important as the fact that you choose to read at all—so whatever kind of book you’re working on right now, please, keep reading!

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