The crisis at the heart of literary fiction

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On Tuesday evening, preselections for the Costa Book Awards were announced. Of the four shortlisted works for the novel of the year award, one deals with climate change, one deals with war and migration, and one deals with racial injustice (and all four are written by women). The First Novel category is also dominated by thematic fiction: race, female identity, end-of-the-world angst (and three of the four are written by women). If one of the professions of fiction is to reflect the world in which we live, it is not surprising to see so many novels actively engaged in the great issues of our time.

Still, Costa’s eagerness to reward the social engagement of his novelists makes me a little uncomfortable. Granted, there are some terrific novels on both lists: AK Blackmore’s debut album The Manningtree Witches is a magnificent recreation of the 17th century Essex witch trials. But I would say a few more were selected because of the piety of their subject matter rather than their consummate storytelling skills. And while I couldn’t help but applaud the ancestry of female literary voices reflected in the presets (75% of general and literary fiction novels sold in 2020 were by women), I also have sympathy for Elizabeth Strout when she questioned in a recent interview whether the fact that women now dominate the business “made it too narrow”.

“Most of the publishing trendsetters are young women now,” admits senior literary agent Clare Alexander who, before setting up her own agency, had worked in publishing for 20 years. (In fact, women now make up 78 percent of writing positions in publishing.) “And they’ll be looking for things that interest them and reflect their lifestyle. But that means posting doesn’t refer to the world as, say, a young white man might find it. There is, for example, no novel equivalent to the Rachel Papers of Martin Amis currently published.

We may or may not mourn the diminishing importance of Friends in today’s literary scene. The bigger problem is an industry that feels increasingly preoccupied with appealing to the social sensibilities of a select group of readers rather than reflecting a plurality of experiences. “I see a lot of buzz around a lot of mediocre novels just because they are about identity politics,” says an editor in his 40s at a big publishing house who doesn’t want to be named. “It’s pretty hard to find a hook for a book that isn’t by a well-established author who will connect with some groups that are very loud on Twitter, unless that’s one of the issues. social news. ” Last year, a friend of his couldn’t find a publisher for his first book. “Their agent said it was really tough because you’re not writing something edgy or about race, you are just writing about a middle class experience.”

Alexander agrees that there is a fair amount of conscientious curation going on. “In a publishing house, it is now easier to buy a book written by a woman, and ideally a woman from a diverse background,” she says. “There is wonderful writing in this space, but there are also checkboxes, which makes it more difficult. Part of this is a needed fix, by which I mean the need for diversity is important, but it’s not the only thing.

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