It is always fun to observe the interaction between the media and a writer who has just won the Nobel Prize. The best ever was obviously Doris Lessing, who, when she walked through the door, simply rolled her eyes and sniffed “Oh Christ”, before turning to pay for her cab. Bob Dylan carefully ignored it all, as Kazuo Ishiguro had clearly emerged from isolation in his office on Thursday (he is writing a novel), to face an avalanche of questions and photographs. Blinking and dumbfounded, he described the themes he has spent his life thinking about and painstakingly disentangling: “The way countries, nations and communities remember their past, and how often they bury them.” uncomfortable memories of their past.
Such questions do not lend themselves easily to a sound sample; asking a literary giant to meet the demands of a 24-hour information cycle is a bit like asking a dinosaur to ride a bicycle. Writing and reading novels are activities that take place in opposition to the frantic and thoughtless rush of modern life. They require a different quality of engagement and focus, and a longer timescale. Serious novelists think deeply for us and find ways to communicate the big questions (“how countries and nations remember their past”) in stories so compelling that readers take them in without having to try. We read The Remains of the Day from Ishiguro because we want to know if Housekeeper Miss Kenton ends up with Butler Mr. Stevens and, in the meantime, soak up the atmosphere and the politics of Great Britain in the meantime. before the second world war. We are mesmerized by the prehistoric and magical landscapes of his 2015 novel The Buried Giant, and we incidentally find ourselves thinking about the importance of history to a disoriented and conflicted nation.
It’s a time of year when novelists grab the headlines, not only because of the Nobel Prize, but also with the imminent announcement of the Booker Prize winner. Meanwhile, the publishing industry is gearing up with the Frankfurt Book Fair, the avalanche of books that just came out on “Super Thursday” and the pre-Christmas sales rush.
In the fall air of the bookish festival, the picture presented by the book industry is far from gloomy: thanks to the popularity of cooking, the art of living, coloring and children’s books, the Sales figures for physical books remain surprisingly resilient, despite assaults from Amazon and e-readers. On the literary side, Booker’s long list this year was particularly strong and diverse, a faithful reflection of the weird, wonderful, and varied writing that emerges from these weird (and not-so-wonderful) times.
But all these reasons to be joyful are set against a background of real concern about the future of the literary novel. Writers from Will Self to Howard Jacobson, from Robert Harris to Claire Messud, have sounded the alarm bells about dwindling attention spans and the time people previously spent reading, now losing competition from digital media .
Leading publishers predict long-term decline for the industry as a whole as young people turn to other forms of entertainment. From a personal point of view, such concerns seem justified: I am organizing the book events for the Brighton Festival, and it has been interesting to observe the trend in ticket sales. With a few exceptions, events with literary fiction writers are a hard sell unless they talk about how to write or participate in a panel discussion related to a larger topic. I also have the impression that my friends read less than before. Parents of young children seem to be pushing their offspring towards books and limiting their screen time (hence the robust sales of children’s books), while they themselves spend every moment of their hobbies connected. Those with older children report that an early interest in reading leads to the easier and faster temptations of Netflix, Facebook and Instagram.
Determining whether these observations are supported by sales figures is no easy task. The Publishers Association reports a 7% drop in fiction sales in 2016, a 23% drop since 2012; other sources like Nielsen BookScan show a less dramatic drop of around 1%, with strong growth in graphic novels and comics. According to Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller, “sales of commercial fiction are in poor health, but there is a general awareness that sales of literary fiction are suffering.”
Why is this important? After all, there are many issues that currently seem more pressing than the fate of the novel. Fiction may seem like a luxury in a world of nuclear and environmental threats, crumbling political and economic systems, and general chaos. But this is also precisely why correct and stimulating reading is so important: to read a good novel is to spend a considerable amount of time immersed in the consciousness of another person; cross the barriers that separate us from each other. It’s taking the time to cultivate the focus you need to step back from the distractions of everyday life and think bigger. We certainly all need it now, more than ever.