Literary fiction is in great difficulty. This has long been suspected by those writing it, but now it is confirmed, at least in Britain, by a report from the Arts Council of England. Sales have dropped dramatically over the past 15 years and most writers can no longer make a living from it.
You might think this is part of a general decline in reading habits, but it isn’t. Britons don’t necessarily read less: Sales of printed books in general rose almost 9% last year. However, on the whole, they are no longer interested in reading literary fiction. Most of the books that sell well in Britain are not literary, and even the greatest hits sell fewer copies and make less money.
This trend is reflected in other countries, including Australia, where no local literary fiction title reached the best-selling list last year, although several award-winning authors including Miles Franklin and Richard Flanagan, winner of the Man Booker Awards, have all published books.
No one is sure why this happens – shorter attention spans? A reluctance to tackle a “difficult” reading? Preference for the quick social media fix? But the report launched different ideas on how to tackle the problem. Broadly speaking, two schools of thought emerge: treat literary fiction as an endangered species and support it in any way possible; or let it sink or swim, because it’s not worth reading it anyway.
In the first camp, there are people like Sarah Crown of the Council for the Arts, who assures us that the Council will improve support for authors and publishers of literary fiction. Or The gardians associate editor for culture, Claire Armitstead, who argues that people need to speak up “loudly and forcefully” for the share of funding for these purposes to be increased.
In the second camp are people like writer and journalist Tim Lott, who puts another argument in The Guardian: that literary fiction writers should write better books. They have literally lost the plot, he says: they devote themselves to voice and style to the detriment of narrative motivation and story, the devices that draw most of us into fiction and allow us to read on.
Lott is right, but he greatly exaggerates it. Literary fiction is a very large church. Much of it has a strong plot, story, or narrative motivation; and even in books where these elements are not so important, other virtues more than compensate a certain type of reader.
Story, intrigue, and narrative motivation are valued above all in scriptwriting, and as Lott and others point out, big, long-running TV series have replaced novels for many looking. smart entertainment.
However, Zia Haider Rahman worries that many of her fellow novelists will react by writing books that are more like TV shows. “If novelists abandon the very things which are exclusively the purview of the novel, then they are complicit in the disappearance of the novel,” he writes in The New York Review of Books. “If they don’t want to save the novel, why would anyone else do it?” “