The Guardian view on literary fiction: in need of support | Editorial
Stories should come from all parts of society – not just from the well heeled and the middle class
Literary fiction, you might think, is in wonderful health. Book festivals, from Edinburgh and Wigtown in Scotland, to Hay-on-Wye in Wales, to Cheltenham and Bath in England, are flourishing. There is certainly no shortage of people eager to become authors of literary fiction: creative writing courses have proliferated. The British, you could argue, are more at home tucked up with a decent novel than with any other artform. Britain is, after all, the country of Austen, the Brontës and Eliot; of Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith and Hilary Mantel.
Look at the facts, though, and a more worrying picture emerges. It is well known that financing for the arts in Britain suffered a great blow after the global financial crisis: public funding for cultural organisations took a hit, the art market was severely knocked, and spending on theatre and concerts became impossible for many. A decade on there have been some signs of a recovery, albeit patchy and fragile. But this is not so for sales of literary fiction, which have not recovered from the recession. According to new research commissioned by Arts Council England, the problem affects literary fiction in particular. Genre fiction is doing better, dominating digital sales (the popularisation of the e-reader followed swiftly on the heels of the financial crisis; Amazon energetically promoted its Kindle for Christmas in 2010). The arrival of the smartphone, offering a game or the latest headlines as a tempting alternative to a paperback when one is stuck on a train or waiting for a bus, has had an impact. Meanwhile, pricing of literary fiction has remained flat, so the value of the overall market has shrunk.