Virginia Woolf said that Katherine Mansfield was the only person of whose writing she had ever felt jealous. Some of Mansfield's stories are, indeed, strikingly original. A new study by Anežka Kuzmičová and colleagues is an investigation of the reading one of these stories: "The fly," published in 1922, a year before Mansfield died.
The story is about "the boss," an elderly man who is reminded of the death of his only son, six years previously, in World War I. His son had been everything to him. In the period after his son's death, the boss had wept many times. Following the reminder, he made a demand to his office assistant that he should not be disturbed. He did this because he wanted to weep again, but no tears came. Mansfield writes: "He wasn't feeling as he wanted to feel." He noticed a fly in his inkwell, fished it out with a pen, put in on his blotting pad, and watched it go through elaborate motions to clean itself. When it had done so, the boss filled his pen, and from it let fall a drop of ink onto the fly. Then, writes Mansfield, "... as if painfully, it dragged itself forward." More slowly this time, it started to clean itself again, and finally finished the task. Then the boss dripped more ink on the fly, then did so once more. The fly was dead. The boss flung the blotting paper with the sodden fly on it into the waste-paper basket, and could no longer remember what he had been thinking about before.
"The fly" is a story with lots of imagery and foregrounding, characteristics of literary writing. Influenced by the finding of David Kidd and Emanuele Castano (2013), that reading a literary short story as compared with a popular one, improved readers' empathy and theory-of-mind, Kuzmičová and colleagues asked people to read either a direct translation of "The fly," into Norwegian, or a translation that had been rewritten by a writer of popular fiction to remove foregrounded phrases. The method used by the researchers was to ask participants to read either the literary translation or the more popularly written version, and to mark passages that they found striking and evocative. They were then asked to choose three of these passages and write of their experiences in reading them. People's writings of their experiences were then coded for expressions of empathy.
The researchers expected, with this method, to replicate the result of Kidd and Castano. Instead they found that empathetic expressions were more numerous among readers of the more popularly written story than among readers of the more literary version. No allowance was made for differences of reading difficulty between the two versions, and there is no mention of the coding being done by people who were blind to which condition the participants' experiences were from. Nevertheless the result is thought provoking, and goes against a current trend. What might it mean?
Since our research group published the finding that the more fiction people read, the better they did in a test of empathy and theory-of-mind (Mar et al., 2006), empathy has become a topic of interest in understanding effects of fiction. Kidd and Castano (2013) hypothesized that the effect is principally due not just to fiction as compared with non-fiction, but that it occurs especially with literary works. So a kind of generalization has occurred: that the main effect of literary reading is to increase people's empathy.
Increased empathy may indeed occur with literary writing. Indeed this effect has been found by Emy Koopman (2016) for a literary text that included foregrounding as compared with a version from which foregrounding had been removed.
When I read Mansfield's stories, I find myself going back to read passages again, in order to think about them. This happened when I re-read "The fly." It could be that, in the study by Kuzmičová and colleagues, the popular version of "The fly" was more straightforward, more engaging for its readers, than the literary version.
Prompting empathy is not the only effect of literary writing, and foregrounding is not the only feature that makes for literariness. "The fly" seems to me to be less about empathy than about the passage of time, about regression to childhood, about the unconscious, about the human propensity, in war and in grief, to be cruel.
Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 342, 377-380.
Koopman, E. M. E. (2016). Effects of "literariness" on emotions and on empathy and reflection after reading. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 10, 82-98.
Kuzmičová, A., Mangen, A., Støle, H., & Begnum, A. C. (2017). Literature and readers’ empathy: A qualitative text manipulation study. Language and Literature, 26, 137-152.
Mansfield, K. (1922). "The fly." In D. M. Davin (Ed.), Katherine Mansfield: Selected stories (pp. 353-358). Oxford: Oxford University Press (current edition 1981).
Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J., & Peterson, J. B. (2006). Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds. Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694-712.