Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Literary Fiction....in decline

Its rare for Arts Council announcements to get everyone in a lather, but last week's report that they fewer writers have enough to live on, and that the decline in sales of literary fiction is to blame, seems to have caused a bit of a fuss. "Literary fiction in crisis as sales drop dramatically" is reported in the Guardian.  ACE's literature director is Sarah Crown, ex-of the Guardian, and so it seems like there's been a bit of a step change in the way that ACE looks at literature. It's always been the Cinderella of funded arts, as their was an understanding that the "market" looked after itself and that funded intervention went for poetry, or fiction in translation.

With over 1000 comments and 5000 shares, the article has clearly struck a chord - but I'm guessing, like when someone comments about faults in a story, its easy to see what's wrong, more difficult to see what needs fixing.

I've always found it annoying that here, in "the land of Dickens and Shakespeare", our arts funding goes so proportionately to other art forms that we act as mere receiving houses for. I've nothing against opera or the classical repertoire or dance, and recognise the high costs of staging such things; but amongst the small pot of money that subsidises the arts literature has always got crumbs off the table. In twenty years of trying seriously to be a writer, my public subsidy is probably in the hundreds of pounds, and then more accidental then anything.

But I'm not really that bothered about public subsidy for literature per se - for that needs to come out of some kind of coherent approach. Its forgotten now, but when Tony Blair established Nesta, as the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts it gave a yearly stipend to "fellows" - I think it was £25,000 a year for three years. It was a great ideal but of course those who received it, in the arts at least, were consummate insiders, primarily.

Poetry, always a marginal commodity, has thrived over the last few years as a kind of participatory art - fuelled by individual passions, small presses (some with subsidy), live readings, and a generational shift that has opened up the artform considerably. It ranges from the performance poets like George the Poet and Kate Tempest, to the mainstream literary festival favourites like Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage, to a more interesting experimental side - now coming to the fore with editor-poets like Emily Berry. Something has gone right here - and oddly enough, I don't think its the "dumbed down" idea of themed poetry days, or Instagram poetry; but a slow inexorable building of a networked culture of individuals putting on their nights and running their own magazines. Even if the BBC and the main newspapers are still reluctant to feature anything that's not published by Cape or Picador, poetry seems in reasonably good health. (The sales of individual poetry volumes might be another issue entirely.)

What is "literary fiction?" I guess it has become a "genre" in its own right - but really it should just be referred to as "fiction". For as soon as you tie it down - individual novels, rather than series, (well what about the Melrose novels?); non-genre (well what about Hilary Mantel's historical fiction) the definition fails.  Yet, I actually guess we know what we mean - literature that might last, that has some kind of serious intent, and is not purely market driven.

When I started writing I'd have probably said the writers I most wanted to emulate were writers who were not really classed as either literary or not - but were certainly popular, and, importantly, good. Stephen King, Iain Banks, Douglas Adams. As I got a bit older I began to appreciate prose style as a prerequisite so Martin Amis, Angela Carter, Ian McEwan, Brett Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, Douglas Copland and others became favourites. It's odd that some - all? - of these wouldn't necessarily have been classed as "literary fiction" in the past - they were all tyros of one form or another. Yet by the late 1990s, unashamedly commercial writers like Alex Garland, Nick Hornby and Helen Fielding, as well as children's writers like J.K.Rowling and Philip Pulman were repeatedly being referred to as "literary". That stretching of definition means that quite mainstream bestsellers are routinely touted as literary fiction.

The reality is that we are talking about two different things here. There's a desire for "literary fiction" to hold its own in the market place, but by including bestselling authors in the list, is it the equivalent of including Rupi Kaur, Pam Ayres and Spike Milligan in the poetry figures?

I'm thinking there are three sides to this - readership; publishing; and critical culture.

I have no doubt that appetite for literary fiction has gone down. But it's not so simple to say why that is. I suspect that the percentage of people buying books is not that different, but that the numbers of books we have time to read is coming down. I'm astonished by the diversity of things I find in my local charity shops - often unread. People are buying, but not reading. Over time, that "unnecessary" or additional purchase probably gets replaced. Books take space (despite the Kindles etc.) and the prime new audiences - college educated graduates, cultural engaged non-graduates - are, I suspect, space as well as time short. Looking for houses last year, hardly any new places looked as if "books furnish a room". The "habit" of book buying, reading, and keeping is one that can be hit at both ends - the recession no doubt reduced disposable incomes, and new audiences are increasingly not finding the habit. Our utilitarian schools and university system might be partly to blame. I work with a large number of bright, intelligent, articulate people in their twenties, thirties and forties, but their cultural consumption is largely blockbuster films and Netflix. A book becomes well known when it becomes a film - yet even though those book-to-film adaptions seem to get faster, I rarely hear a cultural conversation about it (whereas there would be for "Black Mirror" or "The Wire.")  Yet, it seems to me that in the UK we have a growing population. My generation are more literary than my parents thats for sure if only because more of us stayed on at school, or through the cultural exchanges between literature and pop music of the sixties, seventies and eighties. Are there books out there for us? You'd be hard pressed to find books aimed at male fifty somethings outside of non-fiction and old favourites, for instance. With a population of closing in on seventy million, there should be an ample appetite for good books - but here, the issue that Kit de Waal has recently raised about diverse voices comes into play - who are the poets and storytellers chronicling Brexit Britain?

But its a strange market that complains because people are no longer buying its product without looking closely at itself. One of the phenomenon of the last few years is that the publishers with money have given up on long term development, relying on an ever growing number of "indies" to take on the A&R role. The music industry should offer a cautionary tale here. In the early 90s the success of bands like the Smiths and New Order had made record labels more open to new talent. They started up "fake indie" labels (publishing is doing the same: Fiona Mozley's Booker shortlisted novel was a JM Original, part of the multinational Hachette group) like Blanco y Negro. Yet so many "indie" bands were signed and then given big budgets, or different producers, and few of them made back their investment, as the "product" had been changed to such an extent that its original audience drifted away, and the new "pop" audiences weren't convinced.  In publishing, there was a bit of a new writer goldrush in the nineties, where it seemed books were as likely to be launched in night clubs as in bookshops and I think one shop even had a shelf of titles endorsed by Irvine Welsh or Nick Hornby. The "chemical generation" writers mostly disappeared as quick as they appeared - either because they weren't very good, or were moonlighting from journalism or film or TV. Any survey of 21st century British fiction would need at least a chapter on the phenomenon that is Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" and "Bring up the Bodies" - yet the former was 10 novels into a career that had begun a quarter century before. The "midlist" from which such writers could hope to appear sometimes seems to have disappeared. My own surprise at the publishing industry is that you're really only as good as your current thing, and that often might not fit the zeitgeist. That lack of career development is even more damaging in literature than it is in music. Drop Blur after their difficult second album and you don't get "Park  Life", drop that awkward short story writer George Saunders and you lose the rights to "Lincoln in the Bardo."

Of course the latter example shows that talent is often supported. I'm sure that writers like Gwendoline Riley, Jon McGregor, Sarah Hall and A.L. Kennedy aren't big sellers, or best sellers, but I suspect any list would want writers of that calibre on them. Yet, its a hard call. If Riley's latest hadn't made prize shortlists, or McGregor's debut hadn't been so successful...would they have had the opportunity? It's a myth that writers will write regardless - my own example is a good one, imperfect as it is - I wrote half a dozen novels between 1995 and 2002, and then none - the difficulty of fitting such a large complex piece of work into a working life was too self evident. The novel I'm finishing at the moment was started in 2015 I think; I've a decade of lost novels (not lost writing: there are stories, poems etc.).  Eimear McBride whose indie-published debut "A Girl is a Half Formed Thing" was such a phenomenal book, had put it in a drawer for a decade whilst she did other stuff.
So, writing is a long game, and the publishing industry used to recognise this. But of course, without an audience, even a low-advance book is a risk. With agents and editors changing jobs, imprints being bought out, its a bit like the Premiership - the "soul" of a club can easily be lost, with only the long suffering fans still caring; publishers are only as good as their list but would anyone outside the industry have any idea who a Random House author might be? Conglomerates have no institutional memory.  I guess its only fair to say that there are still plenty of good books published, but there are also far too many which are merely competent writers, doing something that fits in with the market as it is now. I don't pretend to be definitive on this - but I think you can tell from reading someone's work whether they have talent that needs nurturing, or are simply journeymen. Too many of the "talent spotters" in publishing rely on a very limited set of assumptions - about what a writer is, what a writer looks like, and worse still what a writer should write. The recession has no doubt not helped, and every publisher has writers they would like more people to read but simply haven't connected.

I guess this brings us to the third thing - the critical culture. Though I think Arts Council could and should do more about the first two above - there are many things that can be done to support and develop writers, and individual grants are no doubt one part of that; there are many good publishers out there who deserve some help in marketing and enabling them to develop a "critical mass"; the collapse in local government funding and subsequent loss of library sales is a national crime that the last administration wilfully perpetuated. But beyond that I can't help thinking that what we lack so much in the UK is a genuine critical culture. For if its no longer the "big boys" who are publishing literary work or getting it to the market place, then their privilege in terms of access to media, is one that seems increasingly worrying. We've all heard stories of how our major arts prizes are skewed in favour of large companies, through the "risk" involved in being shortlisted, or winning, sometimes beyond the resources of a small company; but there's also a horrifying conformity around our literary culture. The above article was in the Guardian, yet as the bastion of liberal media, it seems to have spent the last ten years or more ignoring the very indie scene that is now the main thing keeping literature alive. The BBC is even worse - with an absolute contempt for literature that you wouldn't find for any of the other art forms - everything populised, dumbed down, and without a whiff of innovation - and this an institution that relies on writing for so much of its successes over the years. Our universities are also to blame - the amount of creative writing graduates and postgraduates is a good thing in my mind - but how come this isn't also a keen audience for new literary work? Most university towns you'll struggle to find a single literary magazine on display near the campus and I doubt they are in the libraries either. In America, there still seems to be enough of an infrastructure - of critical magazines like Bookforum and N+1, short story magazines - from the New Yorker down to regional and college publication - to enable quality to rise. I'm sure they have their own problems. In Ireland, where literature is seen as a national treasure there remains a surprisingly strong pipeline of good - and often experimental - writers - who are somehow able to get published and sustain writing careers. I'm sure money is always an object - and as someone who has always worked, I'm not against writers having a day job.

Plenty that could be done: and I hope what is done is done with some imagination, rather than with just consultation, or a desire to "dumb things down". The dumbing, we have seen, rarely works.

1 comment:

Tim Love said...

I've read the report but don't feel able to react to it, so your comments are useful. Thanks. I still don't know how I'd like money to be given to literature. I think the growth of Indie publishers over recent years has been good for poetry's diversity, but it's not helped fiction much. I'd have thought that the increasing numbers of Creative Writing students might have boosted literary sales. I can believe that e-books have led to fewer literary books being read. I spent a few days in Dublin, where prose seems better supported than here. Until I read the report I hadn't realised that "42% of writers from a BAME wrote literary fiction, against only 27% of white writers".
Jon McGregor's "So many ways to begin" is one of my favourite books - it deserves to be popular. "This Isn't The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You" is very different. Sarah Hall's more reliably deserving of a bigger readership.