…and science fiction and horror and… every other genre has been made before, and now it’s my turn. I have turned to this subject in the past, including my suggestion that we not forget that fiction—of any genre—is also an art form in “Lest We Forget the Art,” but something caught my eye that got me thinking on that subject again.

In “Reading literary versus popular fiction promotes different socio-cognitive processes, study suggests,” Beth Ellwood reports on a study by Emanuele Castano of the University of Trento and the National Research Council in Italy in which a comparison is made of the cognitive effects of reading either “literary” or “popular” fiction. Though their conclusions aren’t anti-genre, per se, and I obviously haven’t made any effort to repeat their research, what struck me as a trouble spot in this is the often loose, even personal definition of “literary” and “popular.” Their definitions, at least according to Ellwood, pulls out authors as examples: “literary (e.g. Don DeLillo, Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munroe) and popular fiction (e.g. Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, Jackie Collins).” I can see where they’re going with that and will certainly not try to make a case for Brown, Clancy, or Collins as serious literary authors, but the danger I see is that allgenre authors—and we’ve all seen this happen in the past—then get tossed into the “popular” category.

Before I get deeper into that, Let’s look at the conclusions of the study itself. The authors of the study said 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.”

So this is what they went looking for, even while carefully trying to side-step the “this is good,” this is bad” categorization we still see in the discussion of literary vs. genre fiction. According to Castano:

We are not saying that literary fiction is better than popular fiction. As human beings, we need the two types of thinking that are trained by these two types of fiction. The literary type pushes us to assess others as unique individuals, to withhold judgment, to think deeply. It is important, but it can paralyze us in our attempt to navigate the social world. The popular type reinforces our socially-learned and culturally-shared schemas; a mode of thinking that roughly corresponds to what Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman calls System 1: fast, automatic, well-practiced.

I submit that for a well functioning society a continuous tension between these two types of thinking styles—and thus both types of cultural products that, among other factors, promote them. Too much literary, and we disintegrate as a society. Too much popular, and we ossify. Neither scenario is auspicable.

Okay, so it doesn’t hurt us as individuals or as a society to read popular fiction. I like that. And, again, it makes some sense to me that Alice Munroe and Tom Clancy might work toward different parts of our psyches. But then what about the many, many books and authors that can be and have been classified as both literary and genre fiction? I would put Margaret Atwood, Ray Bradbury, Mark Z. Daniele ski, Octavia Butler, Haruki Murakami, and George Orwell firmly in a third category of “literary genre.” And obviously that’s not the full list—not even close. I’ve read Philip K Dick and he “paints a more complex picture of human affairs, and of the human psyche,” doesn’t he? Doesn’t Margaret Atwood? Of course she does. And Ernest Hemingway at least sometimes “reinforces our socially-learned and culturally-shared schemas,” doesn’t he? Doesn’t F. Scott Fitzgerald?

Look, nobody loves a good hack-and-slash sword and sorcery fantasy yarn, alien-crunching space opera, or tentacley supernatural horror gore fest as much as me, but not all “popular” authors and “popular” books fall into those categories. If you’re writing to entertain, fantastic. By all means keep doing that. If you’re writing to educate or elucidate, that’s fantastic, too. If, like most genre authors you’re finding some balance between both—better yet. After all, maybe the definition of the “perfect novel” is one that paints a more complex picture of human affairs, and of the human psyche, while at the same time reinforcing our socially-learned and culturally-shared schemas.

—Philip Athans

P.S.: If you would like to tackle the full study you can find it here:

The effect of exposure to fiction on attributional complexity, egocentric bias and accuracy in social perception” byEmanuele Castano, Alison Jane Martingano, and Pietro Perconti, published May 29, 2020

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I tried to make this book both literary and popular…

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. garyklinecc2014 says:

    “Literary genre” certainly describes my favorite authors, and what I aspire to write. Stephen King and others you’ve named give me both sides of the story coin – imaginative settings and stories, coupled with real people and the ‘human condition.’ Very cool that someone boiled that down to our neurological/psychological needs.

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