Does Literary Fiction Improve Mental Cognition?

Why the Fuck Would I Waste My Time Reading Literary Fiction If It’s Not Going To Give Me An Edge In The Mental Cognition Game?

Like, who gives a shit about your imagined journey to self-realization in our consumerist age? Make me more empathetic or go back to Iowa, asshole.

You could be doing anything else right now! Photo: Paul Bence

Does reading literary fiction make you better able to understand other people? Of course not. It’s an idea so stupid that even those who actually enjoy reading books about writers in Brooklyn trying to understand what it means to be a writer — and a human being — in Brooklyn would probably find it a little suspicious, and yet it’s something we have been hearing repeatedly for the last few years, ever since a study showed that exposure to literature of that type helped improve theory of mind (“the ability to attribute mental states — beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc. — to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own”).

Well, I hope you’re sitting down, because, like every other psychological study these days, that study turns out to be irreproducible bullshit.

Literary fiction did not do any better than popular fiction, expository non-fiction, and not any better than reading nothing at all” at boosting cognition, according to Dr. Deena Weisberg, a senior fellow in Penn’s psychology department in the School of Arts & Sciences, who reran the experiment and found that, guess what, spending hours of your spare time plowing through some dense and symbol-laden carnival of affectation and ambiguity only makes you resentful of the publishing industry that pushed the book on you in the first place. What it doesn’t do is give you any additional insight into the human condition, because writers are, for the most part and deservedly so, shut-ins whose experience is mainly drawn from their own desperate imaginations of what other people are like. Maybe you’ll learn a little bit more about the kind of person who is driven to write literary fiction, but why the fuck you would want to know or even spend a second in the presence of a person like that is a mystery that Science will never solve no matter how many advances in the field occur.

Even though this idiot idea was always as unlikely to be true as anyone who ever thought about it for more than two seconds would have realized, Dr. Weisberg still holds out hope for those of you who have lost years of your lives reading the ponderous pages of soul-searching prose purveyed by the wide variety of alabaster Jonathans our age offers up as interpreters of the current climate. “[P]erhaps a protracted engagement with fictional stories such that you boost your skills, perhaps that could” improve your abilities in the area of empathy, she offers weakly. But why would you even want to? You know what people are like already. Perhaps you could just chuck all the books and watch TV to your heart’s content. Everyone’s saying it’s the new literature, and all you have to do is sit on your ass to absorb it. You can even eat while you’re watching it! Try that with a book! You know what? Fuck books. What have they ever done for you?