Saturday, 23 May 2015

Reading fiction makes the world a better place

Reading about the lives of other people is enlightening and educational. When you read, you are using your imagination to climb into the minds, hearts and lives of others and take on their world and their emotions. Good writing  whatever your genre  should be able to make the reader feel, what the character feels; whoever they are, wherever they live, whatever they believe. 

I am talking about empathy here – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Empathy requires you to use your imagination. Reading fiction enhances the imagination, and increases your potential for empathy.  

In their 2006 study, Bookworms versus Nerds, Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley exposed participants to both fiction and non-fiction reading material, and found that 'comprehension of characters in narrative fiction appeared to parallel the comprehension of peers in the actual world, while the comprehension of expository non-fiction shares no such parallels.'  Furthermore, 'the tendency to become absorbed in a story also predicted empathy scores.' 

Their 2009 study, Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy, attempted to replicate these findings whilst ruling out the huge variable of individual personality. They found that 'fiction exposure still predicted performance on an empathy task,' And that 'exposure to fiction was positively correlated with social support. Exposure to nonfiction, in contrast, was associated with loneliness, and negatively related to social support.'

Subsequent studies have backed up Mar and Oatley’s research, with especial emphasis on reading literary fiction. 

"You never really understand a person  until you consider things from his point of view -
until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

Harper Lee
Empathy is possibly one of the most important social skills we can master. It creates connections, and leads to a deeper understanding of people (why others think, feel and act as they do) as well as broadening our understanding of other cultures and societies. In turn, this increased understanding helps us have better relationships, and build stronger communities.

As if that wasn’t enough, empathy increases our emotional intelligence, our powers of perception, improves communication and develops the imagination. And the more we can relate to and imagine what the emotions and experiences of others actually feel like for them, the less likely we are to judge, which leads to greater sensitivity, more tolerance and more compassion. 

This clearly isn’t a comprehensive study on the subject, but as a writer of fiction, I must frequently put myself in the shoes of another and try to understand how they think and feel; I ask myself, "how would this person react, and why?" I’d like to think this makes me less critical of others, and more inclined to look beyond the behaviour and try to understand how and why people behave as they do.

And when Bring Me Sunshine was studied by students on the Working with Children, Young People and Families course at Cumbria University, I received dozens of letters of thanks (see here for a selection of their comments) for enlightening them about the feelings and experiences of young carers. When readers tell me they felt what my character was feeling, it means I’ve done my job properly. For those readers, perhaps it will also inform the way they go out about their lives… As one student kindly put it:

As our module explores the challenges young people, children and families face, this book is extremely helpful. Compared to other academics texts this book allows the reader to feel more connected and therefore take more from it. I feel as though I will be able to use this book to further my studies as it has given me a wider knowledge on the challenges (young carers) face in today’s society, and how they can be helped.”

Which brings me to my conclusion; you should read fiction not just because it's fun and absorbing and a perfectly blissful way to while away a few hours, but because developing more empathy and compassion will make the world a better place.

Thanks to all those students who gave me such valuable feedback on Bring Me Sunshine.

To read more about the benefits of empathy, take a look at The Culture of Empathy 

Saturday, 2 May 2015

A review of Better Left Buried, by Emma Haughton

I was supposed to finish a draft of my own YA novel before I read Better Left Buried, but I made the mistake of dipping inside and reading the prologue… A few hours later, I emerged, emotionally drained, and yet completely satisfied by this wonderfully gripping novel.

Sarah’s brother has died, her mum’s not coping and her dad’s working away from home. Even her best friend, Lizzie, seems a little remote. Sarah struggles to manage her grief alone, while caring for her mum and preparing for an important singing audition which could decide her future. We have every reason to feel for Sophie, an ordinary girl, in the middle of a family tragedy.

But right from page one we know this goes beyond ordinary and tragic. Danger lies ahead and yet, like Sarah, we’re not exactly sure where, why, or who to trust. There’s a mystery to be solved, and we’re with Sophie all the way, trying to make sense of strange happenings. She is followed by a stranger, her home is trashed, she is attacked in the street… and then she discovers that it’s all connected to her dead brother. He started something...and she has to finish it.

Sophie’s thoughts and feelings are entirely believable and her actions, although incredibly risky, flow naturally out of this very sinister plot.

I loved this book! And even though I was lucky enough to beta read Better Left Buried some time ago (and supposedly knew what was in store) there were still surprises. I was still on the edge of my seat. It’s a great read – for teens and adults – packed, from start to finish, with excitement, intrigue and tension. 

If you like thrillers, you’ll love this. Highly recommended.