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Romance? Fantasy? Don’t Get Mad, but Reading Literary Fiction Gives You a “More Complex Worldview.”

Updated: Oct 18, 2023

Fairy in a river
You May Love Fantasy, Romance, Crime, and Science Fiction, but Literary Fiction Provides a Greater Worldview

Emily Temple, author of The Lightness, a novel, and the managing editor at Lithub (Literary Hub), a well-known, online literary website considered “a single, trusted, daily source for all the news, ideas and richness of contemporary literary life” (which it is, in my opinion), wrote what could be considered a controversial piece about literary fiction in a July 2020 post on Lit Hub’s website. The post was untitled, but there was a quote at the top of the post, which served as the title:

Apparently, those who read literary fiction—but not other kinds—have a more "complex worldview."

Obviously, a title or quote like that introducing a blog post/article is going to immediately trigger some readers and writers, in particular those writers and readers who read and write fiction other than literary fiction. But to be fair to Ms. Temple, she’s only reporting what she read in a scholarly paper written by three scholars in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, one scholar from Princeton, one from the University of Florida, and one from the University of Virginia. The original paper is entitled, Reading literary fiction is associated with a more complex worldview.”

I’ve read the paper. And without taking a position (as I write literary fiction and don’t want to piss off the world—although I may have just done that), I think it’s important to remember that the conclusions drawn in the paper were arrived at after four studies were conducted with a total of 5,176 participants, and that the studies conducted included consideration of the subjects’ ages, demographic data, and other factors that might impact the results of the study. You can make up your own judgment on whether that’s enough of a sample, but for me it seems a pretty fair number to draw an accurate conclusion that literary fiction gives you a more complex worldview, given the attributes that were included.

“Fiction . . . does more than just give people social practice – by presenting difference, novelty, and even confusion, it underlines the idea of the world as a radically complicated place.”

Nicholas Buttrick, Erin C. Westgate, and Shigehiro Oishi

At any rate, the authors go on to state that “The content of the narrative matters, not just the structure. Narratives that do not challenge their readers, even if such narratives require the simulation of other minds and allow for practice in navigating the social world, should not generate a sense of the variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty of life; rather, they may bolster a sense of the world as simple, orderly, and predictable.” The way I read that is that literary fiction addresses the complexities of life, while other genres are a bit “simpler” in terms of the topics they address and thus less interested in society as a whole but rather in the entertainment value of the words on the page.

Not to bash Romance novels, but the authors point out that “romance novels are characterized by stock settings, characters, and plots, thereby differing from literary fiction in the degree to which they pose a challenge to a reader’s view of the world.” Other novels clearly fall into a similar category, but on the opposite side of the coin, there are other genres like historical fiction and even science fiction (again, according to the authors), that “often, (but do not always)” achieve what literary fiction does when it comes to understanding the complexities of the world. They do, however, mention that readers of romance novels may experience higher empathic concerns and “psychological richness,” two obviously positive traits to have.

“. . . reading in genres that tend to emphasize difficulty (such as essays, science fiction and historical fiction) tend to predict more complex views of the world, while reading in genres that tend to emphasize accessibility, such as self-help or ‘chick-lit,’ tends to predict less complex views.”

Nicholas Buttrick, Erin C. Westgate, and Shigehiro Oishi

Much of what the authors of the study lay out are topics that seem to me to be extremely relevant to today’s society. Not that literature dictates all of the vitriol we see around the world and here in America ravaging our societies, but it certainly, in my opinion, contributes to it. What we read affects us, in much the same way that watching television, especially the various Left and Right news organizations and their biases, affect how we view the world. It’s why short, four-word slogans resonate with millions of people, and complex, detailed explanations don’t. Detailed explanations of things is hard work, just like reading literary fiction is for many readers. Which leads us to the concept of attributional complexity.

“Those with less attributional complexity [defined by the authors as] comfort with ambiguity and willingness to understand behavior in terms of complex systems, rather than simple, inherent, causes” . . . are more likely to see outcomes of events as having single, simple, discrete causes . . .; more likely to be overconfident in their judgements; more likely to blame others for their own bad outcomes; and even more likely to bend towards paranoia and conspiratorial ideation (Mehl etal., 2014; Randjbar, et al., 2011).”

I won’t bore you with the statistical data, but a lot of the data concerns many of the things that we not only read about in literary fiction (and to a lesser extent in other genres), but that we’re currently experiencing (and have been experiencing) in not only the United States but globally, politically and sociologically. What I’m referring to is how much weight we put into the beliefs we hold in the legitimacy of the systems of our societies (government, education, business, etc.), as well as the people in whom we put our trust (educators, politicians, military leaders, and so on).

Chart on attributional complexity in literary genres
Attributional Complexity Study Results by Buttrick, Westgate, and Oishi

The study, as the authors admit, is imperfect, because categorizing literary fiction is, in and of itself, subjective. Who’s to say, definitively, which novels or short stories fall into the category of “Literary Fiction?” I mean, we all think we know, but do we really? I’ve read science fiction that, while dealing with the reality of science, didn’t particularly strike me as science fiction; to me it was one hundred percent literary fiction. The science fiction aspect of the novel was simply the setting in which the author decided to set the novel. Everything else involved the same elements of literary fiction or “character-driven” fiction. The where didn’t matter.

“In viewing the world as more complex, a person is more likely to have experiences that change their mind, that allow them to think about problems differently, and to practice the cognitive flexibility needed in contemporary society.”

Nicholas Buttrick, Erin C. Westgate, and Shigehiro Oishi

I’m a member of a great many writing groups on social media. Most of those groups are horror or fantasy or science fiction groups, as well as the subgenres beneath those main categories. I am a member of exactly zero literary fiction groups. Not because I don’t want to be, but because they’re apparently very few out there. But I’ve always known literary fiction was the outsider. Literary fiction wins Pulitzers. It wins National Book Awards. It wins Bookers. But what it doesn’t do very well is sell books. Make of that what you will.

Cully Perlman is a writer and Substantive Editor (SE). Contact him at if you would like to discuss hiring an editor for your novel.

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Oct 18, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Serious article about a touchy subject. But it makes sense once you read it in its entirety.

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