Literary fiction is in crisis. New chapter in author funding must begin | Claire Armitstead

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FFinally, it’s official: literary fiction is in crisis, and writers across the country are burning midnight oil in their attics, teaching, or taking up unrelated jobs to keep the fire in the fireplace. That Dickensian image was revealed today by Arts Council England in a report that suggests it may need to shift its funding priorities in order to save a population whose economic and cultural solvency has eroded over the years.

So why did it come to this, and how important is it really? The first thing to know is that people don’t necessarily read less – print sales of fiction, non-fiction and children’s books increased by almost 9% in the UK last year, while Tuesday market analysts Nielsen BookScan will reveal that sales during the all-important Christmas period have increased 20% since 2013.

But it’s undoubtedly true that in the age of smartphones and streaming services, books face unprecedented competition for our attention; and that when we choose a book over a movie or social media feed, we choose less boldly. The centerpiece of last year was JK Rowling (and Jack Thorne) screenplay for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Rowling has also appeared in 12th, 28th, 64th and 95th places, the latter being her alter ego, crime writer Robert Galbraith – a success due to the combination of branding and familiarity that can move the train forward. for years, even decades. Philip Pullman’s sequel to His Dark Materials, La Belle Sauvage, has sold nearly a quarter of a million copies since October.

Authors who have become intergenerational as their original young readers have grown up particularly benefit from this tendency for familiarity to breed affection. But that’s not limited to children’s writers. The last tome of the very literary and very adult trilogy of Thomas Cromwell of Hilary Mantel will be guaranteed to mega-sales when it finally arrives in the stands.

Graph of general fiction sales in value, 2001-2016

This imperative for continuity has long been rooted in the foundations of commercial publishers, who expect many of their most successful authors to spit out a book a year. And as publishing has become more centralized, with much of its power now concentrated in three giant conglomerates, it has become more ruthless.

The brutal truth is that during the 80s and 90s it was possible for the literary novelist to experience advances that were “not worth”. They were supported by an old-fashioned value system which sanctioned the write-off of losses for the congratulations of association with an “important” writer and the belief that literary value could be outweighed by profits from a larger edition. pragmatic.

But it’s easy to get casually nostalgic. If you look at the literary novels cited by the Arts Council as having sold over a million over the past two decades, another trend emerges: Ian McEwan’s Atonement, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife may not have owed its initial success to the films that were made of it, but they took advantage of the lucrative tie-in market.

Unlike the performing arts, publishing has always been a largely commercial sector that has had to square off itself. This is reflected in the fact that it only receives 7% of the funding pie distributed by the Arts Council, compared to 23% for theater and 11% for dance.

Most of this money went to support publishers who produce poetry and literature in translation, who have never been able to pay their fees. There will therefore be blood on the carpet if existing resources are reallocated to support literary novelists.

There will be those who say that it just shows that literary fiction is a hangover of the past, and the poor darlings should get down on their knees and resign themselves to writing what people actually want to read. But few would dare to make the same argument about experimental theater or dance. And that ignores the fact that – like both Pullman and Mantel – it can take writers decades to hit the jackpot.

Additionally, research from the New School for Social Research in New York City last year suggested that literary fiction has measurable social value, increasing levels of empathy among readers where more popular forms of genre fiction. do not have.

So, assuming that we are not going to tell writers what to write, and that we do not want literature to become the exclusive preserve of those who do not need to make a living, we have to find ways to enable to other types of novelists to continue.

It cannot simply mean cutting the existing slice of the cake into smaller or different portions; this must involve speaking loudly so that the size of the share is increased. Even ignoring their intrinsic value, what would the worlds of cinema or theater be without all these literary novels and short stories to adapt?

Claire Armitstead is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian, Culture

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