The Blue Bookcase's Literary Blog Hop -- in fact, I wasn't aware of this event previously -- but I just saw it over at C'est La Vie and although I am a couple of weeks late, I must join in and answer their very appropriate question!
Discuss Bibliotherapy. Do you believe literature can be a viable form of therapy? Is literary writing more or less therapeutic than pop lit or nonfiction?
This topic is very close to my heart, both as a librarian and as an owner of a company devoted to the principles of bibliotherapy, Four Rooms Creative Self Care.
I think it's important first of all to note that there are two generally accepted forms of bibliotherapy: clinical and creative or developmental. Clinical Bibliotherapy is practiced by therapists and licensed professionals, and incorporates the use of non-fiction, topically relevant books for the patient's needs, to be read and responded to under the guidance of the professional.
Creative Bibliotherapy, on the other hand, is aimed at healthy populations. Its intent is to provide an arena for people facing regular life transitions and troubles to explore the possibilities for the story of their own life. Literature, both fiction and poetry, is used to share the creative ways in which other people perceive the world and face the same kinds of dilemmas that a reader might. Reading in this case gives us words for experiences or emotions that are common to all humanity -- and once we can recognize and name such things they become vastly more manageable. Reading gives us the chance to explore life from inside another person's head, to develop empathy and at the same time to give us the chance to distance ourselves a bit from our own crises and provide a bit of perspective. Besides simply content, the act of reading itself is healthy -- it builds new neural pathways and increases brain health, while giving our minds the opportunity to slow down and find relief from everyday stressors.
Bibliotherapy involves writing as much as reading. Responding to and exploring our reactions to our reading is an important factor in metabolizing our experience of a book. In our writing we discover our impressions of plot, character, setting and why we might have loved/hated or been especially affected by any of these elements. With some thoughtful examination we can understand more about life than we did before we read a particular book. This calls for a conscious, active style of reading and a willingness to respond to a work of literature.
While I think that "literary fiction" and poetry are very suited to this approach because of their natural inclination to explore the grey areas of life and more serious issues overall, a good genre novel can speak to our particular situation as well. Reading a Great Novel out of a sense of obligation will only feel like homework -- if, rather, you prefer science fiction, romance, or westerns, then read those with attention. As a bibliotherapist I try to match reading preferences with themes that connect with the client's needs, and to facilitate deeper exploration of what the books offer.
As to some of the concerns that others who've responded to this question have raised about reading being counterproductive in some situations, it may be true in some cases. In such, however, it seems to be that a clinical relationship is called for. Therapists recognize situations in which they need to limit rather than encourage journal writing; the same could be true of addictive reading that is an avoidance strategy rather than a healthy habit.
In Creative Bibliotherapy we can approach such health issues as low-grade depression and find benefit (severe clinical depression should always be treated medically). The immensely successful British The Reader Organisation has just published a study of the benefits of group reading via Get Into Reading, one of their core programs.
While the last thing I wish to do is to reduce literature to a basic "usefulness factor" I think we can recognize the power of all Art, but especially the interior nature of literature, to enrich our lives and help us along our way.