Reading, Writing, and Empathy

If reading fiction makes you more compassionate, what does writing fiction do?

Tomorrow, we’ll have Richie Narvaez here to talk about his debut novel Hipster Death Rattle. Richie’s kindness when I attended my very first Mystery Writers of America meeting is what inspired my choice of a topic for this week. He was the president of the New York chapter of MWA at the time and was so gracious. If a guy who writes about killing people can be so thoughtful, surely, maybe there is something not only about reading that allows us to better understand–and respond–to how other people are feeling, but maybe writing it does, too.

I couldn’t be a bigger fan, so please join us tomorrow for a wonderful discussion with Richie, a prolific short story writer and winner of a number of awards for his first book, Roachkiller and Other Stories. His latest, Hipster Death Rattle, will be published on March 11, 2019. By the way, not only is the title and cover of his novel crazy cool, but the book is fabulous.

For those of you who don’t have the time to delve into the distinction between genre and literary fiction, or, quite frankly, just don’t want to, please feel free to tune in tomorrow for Richie Narvaez. For those of you who are so inclined, please plow on because I’d love to hear what you think.

I only had a vague recollection of the article “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” published in Science on October 18, 2013. To be more precise, what I remembered were short reviews of the article from the newspaper. I took away the message that reading fiction made readers more empathetic.

The paper, though, is more nuanced. I’m inherently skeptical, so I a few days ago I joined the American Association for the Advancement of Science to read the article. The researchers argue that there is a clear distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction. According to the paper’s authors, only the former has a positive correlation with empathy. Commercial fiction is not helpful in expanding readers’ views because it is “intended to entertain their mostly passive readers” while literary fiction engages its readers “creatively as writers.” The absence of a “single authorial perspective” invites readers to enter a vibrant discourse with the author and her characters in literary fiction. Readers become more able to put themselves in another person’s shoes. Genre, apparently, fiction doesn’t.


I hadn’t anticipated reading an article that was essentially saying genre fiction isn’t as good at expanding a reader’s ability to understand others as literary fiction was, but there it was in black and white.

So, before getting to my original inquiry of how writing fiction affects writers’ ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes, I’d like to examine the notion that genre fiction doesn’t engage the reader the same way literary fiction does.

I’m climbing out on a limb and am going to say it: reading fiction of any genre has the capacity to engage a reader in ways that challenge and expand pre-existing notions about the world and people. Just from my fellow Miss Demeanors’ work, I’ve learned about race, gender, socio-economic and cultural differences. There’s no doubt in my mind that reading mysteries, thrillers, and suspense of all kinds has made me think more about how I inhabit this world, and how I interact with others who share this planet.

So, what do you think. Has genre fiction expanded your world view or made you more empathetic?


  1. I included a bit of a crazy example on Facebook! But in a more general way, yes, almost any reading takes us into other worlds where we begin to understand feelings we would not otherwise have.

  2. Thank you, DA. Thank you for your very kind words! And I totally agree — reading fiction of any genre (and indeed the experience of all kinds of art) builds a person’s level of empathy. It’s important to get out of your own head, out of your own shoes. I recently watched a video (of a TED talk, maybe?) about how a human’s default feeling toward other humans is apathy. That is how we generally walk around — not caring about each other. But I believe that after we sink our head into books, we then raise them up to see the people around us differently and, perhaps, more sympathetically.

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