Is literary fiction in trouble? Readers and authors respond
The Arts Council England report has set the internet ablaze – but are sales of literary fiction in decline because of snobbery, bad writing or Candy Crush?
Arts Council England has sounded the alarm for literary fiction with a report revealing a collapse in sales, advances and book pricing that has left authors unable to support themselves through writing alone. UK sales of general fiction slumped from £216m in 2010 to £143m last year, with the market increasingly skewed towards commercial bestsellers, which was news enough set the Arts Council’s Twitter handle – @ace_national – trending on Twitter, as readers and writers stared down the barrel of cultural Armageddon.
There may be only 10 days to go, but the report was enough for the author Anna Mazzola to start tearing up plans for Christmas:
Wondering what to buy your writer friend for Christmas? Turns out it's a hot meal or bottle of meths.https://t.co/92eJOY6wbF
Some worrying figures in here for literary fiction... Though it does highlight the need for us to keep writing, telling stories, promoting new voices, and exploring what literature means and the impact it has. https://t.co/UpyFEcbnQx
This report says in cold Christmassy daylight what writers have known for a while: https://t.co/LnxDwuOSXD
The fact that 'literary fiction' defines itself against 'commercial fiction' might explain why it isn't doing well commercially.
Far too many of the books published as "literary fiction" just aren't very good. There's an awful lot of minor key, bourgeois navel-gazing, presented as profound insight into the human condition. Readers literally are not buying it.
It seems a particularly Anglophone problem - there is no English-language equivalent of Michel Houellebecq, tackling the really big questions. Or at least, none that have been published. I suspect a unknown writer who wrote something like Atomised or Submission would have no chance of finding a publisher or agent in London.
Internally the effect of consolidation in publishing has meant that the balance of decision making has moved away from conditions most congenial to the longterm support and development of literary fiction. So it's not surprising to see small independent imprints filling the vacuum. Also the power of the retail chains to make shelf space for literary fiction has been undermined by online sales, especially when the leading online bookseller has so relentlessly pursued digital delivery. The shape of publishing has changed enormously since the noughties, true, but it was changing massively before that too.
That's a lot of book sales taken out of the market, a lot of speculative purchases and chance discoveries removed from the reading equation. That third book choice was often a punt. Doesn't happen so much with a Buy One Get One Half Price offer.
Plummeting budgets in library book funds particularly since 2012 must have contributed to this decline. They boost the fiction market and encourage wider reading.
Fiction cannot compete with our reality now.
“In comparison with our smartphones, literary fiction is often ‘difficult’ and expensive... it requires more concentration than Facebook or Candy Crush."
It attitudes like that which put people off "literary fiction."