Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

Understanding and Supporting Your Teenagers – the video

Non-fiction and empathy

I’m speaking on a panel at Waterstones, Piccadilly  this evening, for an event about children’s non-fiction and its role in Reading for Pleasure, and I’ll be referring to some research. I am sure there won’t be time to explain everything I’d like to say fully (and everyone’s brains will be melting in the heat) so I thought I’d post an article I wrote last year for the FCBG’s National Non-Fiction Month.

Non-fiction and Empathy

Many years ago, in about 1993, I trained to work with people with dyslexia. We believed that non-fiction was great for dyslexic pupils or any struggling readers, for two main reasons:

  1. In the quest to improve reading skills, all reading material is equally valuable because, the more you read, the better and more confident you become.
  2. Dyslexia is more common in boys. And boys (and men) often prefer non-fiction. [Edited to add: the official line is now that dyslexia is not more common in boys; however, this really does depend on the definition of dyslexia, which is still disputed, and how it’s measured.]

Years passed, and I continued to value fiction and non-fiction equally. For struggling and reluctant readers, I was just as happy for them to be reading cereal packets, though I’d encourage them to move to inspiring, imaginative, gripping and mind-boosting material when they could. Although I loved fiction, I would never have considered that there was something “better” about it, compared to non-fiction.

Fast forward through the years and stop at about 2007. I’ve moved away from dyslexia teaching and I’m becoming known for writing about the brain, teenagers and how brains learn. There’s fascinating new research about the neuroscience and psychology of reading. We have the beginnings of digital reading and the potential of ebooks. I’m studying all this research and starting to talk about it.

Some of the science is about the power of fiction. I’m reading research by people like Maryanne Wolf (and her book, Proust and the Squid) and then, particularly, Keith Oatley, Raymond Mar and colleagues, who spent years researching and investigating the work of many others. Oatley eventually, in 2011, published Such Stuff as Dreams. It’s a fascinating book. And since I love fiction and by then was talking about the role of reading and reading for pleasure, it was inspirational.

It was also extremely problematic. Because, there was I, valuing fiction and non-fiction equally and yet reading so much which seemed to indicate that fiction, not non-fiction, is crucial in empathy-building.

As Mar, Djikic and Oatley say in their paper “Effects of reading on knowledge, social abilities, and selfhood” (see here): “Exposure to narrative fiction was positively associated with empathic ability, whereas exposure to expository non-fiction was negatively associated with empathy.”

Woah! So, I’m wrong to value non-fiction equally? If I think empathy is important (I do!) and if non-fiction doesn’t develop empathy in readers, how can I value non-fiction equally? Should fiction maybe be like fruit and veg: you’ve got to consume enough of it?

No, I don’t think so. I worked out what the research lacks and why I think some of the conclusions are wonky (though it’s still fascinating research, with value.)

The problem is that the science is trying to measure something very difficult to measure: human reactions, all wrapped up in emotions. And in order to produce research, which must have measurements as its results, the scientists have to measure something which can’t be measured: the quality and nature of the writing. So, take one of the most well-known of the studies the researchers cite: a Chekov short story about a trial is “non-fictionalised” so that half the study group have the original story and half the non-fiction version, basically a courtroom transcript, with no characterisation etc. Bear in mind that the researchers suggest that the reason fiction has a mind-changing and empathy-building effect is that the reader transfers himself into the character’s mind/world/situation, which can’t happen without characterisation and narrative tricks.

Is it any wonder that readers of the original story were able to be “narratively transported” into the character’s mind and into the story, while readers of the transcript couldn’t? Basically, you’re comparing reactions to great writing and not-great writing; you’re not comparing well-written fiction to well-written non-fiction. You’re comparing a beautiful fresh strawberry to a piece that’s had all its strawberriness taken out.

I believe that what matters is not whether it’s fiction or non-fiction but whether you can engage fully with the text, whether you can achieve “flow” and transportation into the words. Good writing can be about football or planets, the ancient Egyptians or how an eel produces its young. Non-fiction often contains stories and people, too, and emotion and character. What matters is that the writer sucks the reader in and keeps him there. It’s about engagement.

So, let’s not spend time discussing the relative merits of fiction over non-fiction. Whether you’re dyslexic or not, or you’re working with reluctant readers or not, value fiction and non-fiction, equally. Read greedily and widely, open-mindedly, for pleasure, growth and change. Find books you love and can bury yourself in and value your children’s engagement in books, not what sort of books they are.

It is all about the writing. Stop judging; get engaging.

PS If anyone ever suggests to you that non-fiction is less good at developing empathy, simply say four words: “Diary of Anne Frank?”

6 Responses

  1. I absolutely agree! I’ve just finished a two terms KS1 and KS2 project with two schools based around raising career aspiration.The children produced a printed book at the end of the project. We began with a fiction story and discussed how we wanted to enjoy the non-fiction as much as the fiction. It all came down to the stories of those people the children interviewed and how best they could get these stories across to their readership. They had to understand what their interviewees wanted from their lives. It turned out to be as much about inspiration as aspiration.

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