Literary vs Popular Fiction

From PsyPost: Reading literary versus popular fiction promotes different socio-cognitive processes, study suggests


Scholars have typically differentiated between literary and popular fiction. For example, engaging with literary fiction is thought to be active; it asks readers to search for meaning and produce their own perspectives and involves complex characters. Popular fiction, on the other hand, is passive; it provides meaning for the readers and is more concerned with plot than characters.

Hmm! I have severe doubts about this presumed dichotomy. Raise your hand if you think the books you prefer to read are more concerned with plot than characters. Anybody raise their hand? Certainly not everybody.

I wonder very much about what the authors of this study consider “popular books.” I wonder if I would agree that those books are more concerned with plot than character.

The researchers conducted a study involving 493 individuals with an average age of 34. Subjects completed a version of the Author Recognition Test where they were asked to indicate which authors they were familiar with among an extensive list of authors. Subjects were then given scores based on how many literary fiction versus popular fiction authors they recognized.

Hmm! Recognized, not liked, I notice. That seems strange! Haven’t we all heard of the authors whose books were assigned in school? Don’t we recognize those names? I wonder … I wonder if this study is actually doing nothing but drawing a line between people who went to college and people who didn’t? Or good students vs disinterested students? Or humanities majors vs STEM majors? It seems to me that people in the first category in each of those pairs would have heard of more literary authors than those in the second category.

I’m quite suspicious now of anything this study purports to have found. I don’t think they were measuring what they think they were measuring! Wouldn’t it have been better to ask people to choose from that list only authors whose books they had read in the past few years? Read AND liked, would perhaps be better.

The results revealed key differences between respondents who engaged with literary fiction and those who read popular fiction. As the researchers expected, reading literary fiction was a positive predictor of attributional complexity, while popular fiction was a negative predictor. 

As expected! Oh, we had this theory, and Lo! we found a way to design a study that suggests we were right.

… literary fiction “paints a more complex picture of human affairs, and of the human psyche, than popular fiction . . . we should find that readers of literary fiction develop more complex schemas about others, their behavior, and about the social world they inhabit.”

Sure. Well, it’s a theory, sure, but I’m not very impressed by the methodology. How hard would it have been to differentiate between people who preferred to read literary vs preferred to read popular fiction? And I still want to know which popular books the authors of the study consider are plot driven and have little character development.

But click through and read the whole thing if you’re so inclined. I bristled right away at the idea that popular fiction promotes a passive attitude in contrast to literary fiction, so perhaps I’m not being fair.

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6 thoughts on “Literary vs Popular Fiction”

  1. That’s a terribly designed study! They’re definitely not measuring anything close to what they seem to think they are. I agree that it’s probably really measuring something related to education level.

  2. I’m pretty skeptical of the methodology too. They should have had someone without any preconceptions design the test/study for them, I think – it’s way too easy to build a test that will show you want you want it to.

    But fundamentally I’d like to know how they defined popular and literary fiction too! Because that is…not a simple thing to define. (A mathematical equation counting ratio of adjectives to verbs??? I’m not sure that would do it, but it’s all I can think of.) And even once you do define it, I bet personal preferences influence your results – I would have stuck them in an MRI while reading to see the differences, but surely the reader’s enjoyment of the book in question is going to skew the results? If you give me two literary books, and I enjoy one, then I’m going to be more ‘passive’ with the one I don’t like, even if it’s also literary. And that has relatively little, if anything, to do with whether it’s literary or popular.

    I think they’d be surprised at how not-passive readers of popular fiction are when they’re reading something they *enjoy*.

    And as much as I wrack my brains, I can only see how you could test for how the reader interacts with books they like vs books they don’t. Genre, or literary vs popular…I just don’t see how you can get any kind of meaningful results if you try and test for those.

    Flawed premise and bad science, I think…why are they all so set on belittling popular fiction, anyway?

  3. Allan L Shampine

    To quote from Derek Lowe’s blog post discussing terrible Covid-related papers that have still managed to get published:

    For example, this thing, which just recently appeared in Science of the Total Environment, an Elsevier journal that I’d never heard of. That’s no particular distinction – Elsevier has a lot of journals that no one has ever heard of, and quite a few that people wish that they never had heard of, either. The title of the paper really says it all: “Can Traditional Chinese Medicine provide insights into controlling the COVID-19 pandemic: Serpentinization-induced lithospheric long-wavelength magnetic anomalies in Proterozoic bedrocks in a weakened geomagnetic field mediate the aberrant transformation of biogenic molecules in COVID-19 via magnetic catalysis“

    That title is quite a ride. You have the unpromising TCM beginning, but then there’s a completely unexpected slide into geology, with a vertigo-inducing snapback at the end into biology via “magnetic catalysis”. Reading the paper itself does not resolve these feelings. It’s full of statements like “The discovery of the chiral-induced spin selectivity effect suggests that a resonant external magnetic field could alter the spin state of electrons in biogenic molecules and result in the magnetic catalysis of aberrant molecules and disease“, in which the verb “suggests” is doing an Olympic powerlift, and the weird and alarming “neither the SARS-CoV-2 infection nor the inflammatory reaction per se is the principal mediator of severe disease and mortality“. It’s the “serpentinization-induced resonant long-wavelength magnetic anomalies” that “induce the magnetic catalysis of iron oxides-silicate-like minerals (i.e., iron oxides, hyaline) from biogenic molecules and SARS-CoV-2 from endogenous viral elements in the genome“, you see. I realize that that last part might be hard to parse (I think they believe that viral particles are being produced endogenously?), but perhaps my house is built over the wrong kind of rock deposits or something. At any rate, one conclusion of the paper is that Nephrite-Jade amulets are appropriate personal protective measures against the pandemic, a recommendation is completely in line with best practices from the Neolithic Hemudu-Majiabang culture in China, and who should know better, I ask you.

  4. The Passive Guy picked that up a couple days ago. I thought it sounded like garbage.
    What jumped out at me in your repost is this bit: engaging with literary fiction is thought to be active; it asks readers to search for meaning and produce their own perspectives and involves complex characters. Popular fiction, on the other hand, is passive; it provides meaning for the readers and is more concerned with plot than characters.

    They clearly have never ever crossed paths with fans. Of anything. Notably it’s ‘popular’ stuff that tends to draw fans. So I’m inclined to turn it around and claim the literary types are those who passively accept. So there. I have at least as good a collection of evidence on my side.

    Allan, that is … amazing.

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