Is literary fiction dead?

This is a guest post by Khanh Ha

Well, what is literary fiction? A slippery term sometimes identified with ‘highbrow’ and ‘pretentious’, it is usually connected with critically acclaimed, award winning fiction. ‘It's those serious-minded novels,’ said Robert McCrum, ‘of high artistic intent by writers with a passionate commitment to the moral purpose of fiction.’ Sounds lofty?

You, as a writer, must have often asked yourself that question.  Readers, those who don’t write, don’t usually ask such questions. Serious readers might ponder this phenomenon, though. And if literary fiction is dead, to your dismay, those readers will seek pleasure elsewhere, obviously not through the reading form of printed words.

So, it’s you the writer who wants to be read that worries. And then the editor who makes a six-figure salary to edit a quarterly literary publication. Nowadays, the editor laments the steadily declining readership, the dwindling subscription of his university-based quarterly. Who does he blame? He blames the glut of the MFA programs by the academic institutions, too many, that have produced a surplus of writers who, according to Ted Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, ‘bored readers with work that is insular, self-centered and often unreadable, when fictions should be concerned with big issues, radiant and reflecting the larger world.’ One thing for certain is the fact that these writers, should they not make it as ultimate authors, would likely end up teaching, editing, agenting. And they are serious readers in this read-no-watch-TV-yes world, unlike those referred to by Gore Vidal: ‘. . . reading of any kind is on the decline. Half the American people never read a newspaper. Half never vote for President. One hopes it is the same half.’ Amen.

So, is literary fiction dead? Not yet. But it’s very sick. Now, don’t blame the MFA programs, the ‘navel-gazing MFA graduates,’ says Jay Nicorvo, who are killing literary fiction. Then what’s killing literary fiction?

Picture a ballroom full of book editors with commercial publishers as their hosts. They’re here to play the game of musical chairs. ‘When the music stops,’ Nicorvo wrote, ‘the editor who isn’t on the acquiring end of a New York Times bestseller—Poor Little Bitch Girl, anyone?—is left without a desk chair.’ Today, editors don’t nurse an author, giving him time over the years to develop his voice, his style to become a family member of the imprint. Tastes no longer dictate what an editor acquires for. He, like an investment banker, now acquires what makes megabucks for his bosses. With this blockbuster mentality, publishers have killed the midlist authors. This mentality takes the mass market’s pulses and feeds the market what it craves. It aims at blockbuster books that pay the bills. Books that might have lasting literary quality bow to books that reflect the current social, political trends.

What has changed drastically is the publishing landscape. Traditional book reviewers have as much impact on a book’s sale as amateur reviewers on Amazon, which is out of editors’ control. The sure thing for them to do now is to model after the movie business: producing blockbusters. This is like the world of dinosaurs when the meteors hit the earth. The dying breed of literary fiction writers now run for their survival by self-publishing their work through print-on-demand (POD) to preserve themselves. Or they publish online through, say, smashwords.com, where writers become eBook authors overnight. Online publishing has become the nesting ground for e-magazines. Look at the growing popularity of indie publishers like McSweeney’s, Tin House, Dalkey Archive, A Public Space. Perhaps printed literary magazines should rethink of making themselves a permanent commodity, instead of just another issue, completely disposable, which costs as much as a new novel.

But don’t blame anyone else yet. Look at the quality of literary fiction recently. Does it excite you? Don’t blame the readers who gobble up thrillers, YA fantasy, horror and crime novels. Why is that? Well,  literary fiction is too boring, ‘if anything ‘too PC’’.

Now, literary fiction isn’t dead. Readers, writers, editors, publishers: give it a mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, because if it dies, each of you is to blame.

‘If such a crisis brought about the restructuring of the Detroit auto industry,’ Nicorvo said, ‘aided by the desperate implementation of available and developing technologies, it can usher in the restructuring of New York City publishing.’

 

About the author: Khanh Ha was born in Hue, the former capital of Vietnam. During his teen years he began writing short stories which won him several awards in the Vietnamese adolescent magazines. He graduated from Ohio University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. He is at work on a new novel.

Connect with Khanh on his website, blog, Facebook, GoodReads, or Twitter.

Kate Robinson

The quality of genre fiction has certainly improved, but let’s face it, literary fiction and genre are two different markets, and not many people who love genre read literary.

I happen to read and enjoy both – I just enjoy a good story. There’s oodles of literary fiction around that’s far from boring. If people aren’t reading lit fic, then they’re missing out! Perhaps it needs to be marketed differently – !

Stuart Ayris

Very interesting article. As an author of novels in the literary fiction category I am entirely aware of the difficulty of enticing large groups of potential readers. My experience is those that enjoy novels outside of the usual genres are also fans of the classics and can be just as affronted at the production of new works as those who wouldn’t care to set their eyes upon anything other than mainstream genre fiction!

One of my novels, Tollesbury Time Forever, has been fortunate to have topped the UK Amazon Literary Fiction Average Review Rankings for the last nine months yet it markedly trails other books in terms of sales.

I continually reassure myself though that for me success was always about a complete stranger finding merit in my work. Not that it’s a huge comfort during those periods of low sales, but it’s the best I can do!

Thank you again for such an interesting and stimulating piece!

Cheers!

Publerati

I launched a new business because I am convinced there are many excellent genre or literary novels available that simply cannot get published well as access is reduced. The idea is to use ebooks to bring these excellent works to readers and to do so in a way that supports the spread of literacy through our partnership with the Worldreader Organization. Come to our site and read the latest news about this and try one of our excellent novels to help support the writers and the cause. Thanks.

Adrienne Clarke

This struck me as a very interesting and timely article. I think you make some very insightful points about the state of the publishing industry, especially with respect to the declining power of professional reviewers and editors’ desire to find the new blockbuster. I do, however, strongly disagree that literary fiction is too boring, or too PC. This is certainly not true of the literary fiction I’ve been reading. If anything, literary takes more risks because it refuses to adhere to a a more commercial “crowd pleasing” formula.

Stuart Ayris

I entirely agree Adrienne. For me the best Literary Fiction pushes boundaries in all sorts of ways and can, at its most sublime, change the way we look at the world and our place in it. Now what can be boring about that?!

marc nash

First let me declare myself as an unapologetically literary writer. Having said that, there is much I disagree in this article, other than the notion that literary fiction really isn’t all that exciting in the titles it’s pushing out these days. That elides into one of your other points, that with the welter of e and self-publishing, it’s all too likely that any title will just be invisible, unable to be located by readers. Literary fiction fares particularly badly on e-readers, because e-readers are about reading on the go, convenience, lifestyle, snatched reading, when some literary fiction, my own included, is anything but convenient to read, but actually a tad challenging. Could you imagine reading “House Of Leaves” on your phone? And that’s assuming that it’s stylistic and visual flourishes could be translated to pixels, which as yet it can’t. So some exciting literary work is out there, it’s just not being located.

I shudder when anyone introduces the word ‘moral’ about any art form. What is the moral purpose of fiction? To instruct? To teach life lessons? I hope not. Learning about life through fictive representations of it is a curious dynamic and one that every literary author really ought to be probing in every one of their works; to wit, why am I telling this particular story, in this style and to whom? The nature of reality, or myth, of fiction, of hyperreality (mass media mediated ‘reality’) all inform the level at which any story, any narrative is pitched. An author ought to be on top of what that is. Few literary authors I believe are and this is why their books probably float around as ‘highbrow’ or ‘self-absorbed’, because the author has not done sufficient work rooting and contextualising them.

The point about creative writing courses really only applies to the US. There are very few in the UK for example. Here the book-buying market is so small compared to the US, it’s rather a different dynamic at play. But one that means even less can the literary book hold up any worthwhile market share against mass sellers. But hey, that’s the reality of things. The readers have spoken. They have voted with their kindles.

get relevant, but not necessarily real literary writers.

Bernie Dowling

It is a bit like feeding the kids. Don’t tell ém it’s broccoli and cover it in cheese sauce. The Maltese Falcon is literary fiction, genre and an extraordinary work of art.
We are creating a tautology by loading lit fic with all the baggage that it is hard to read, unpopular and full of long sentences and big words. In these terms lit fic has to be dying.
I read the detective genre but not many other genres.
The problem with formulaic books is they are addictive and so the reader will demand more of the same. In other words they want novels which are not novel.
And of course, internet retailers base their marketing around the concept of genres.
For all this, lit fic dominates many conversations on Goodreads so I am not too worried. More concerned about mid-listers becoming the de-listed.

George

I have issues with a few things in this article. For one, it – ironically – needs an editor to point out a few inconsistencies.

A commitment to high artistic intent in a work of fiction can be devoid of any moral objective or rumination, case in point, much of what we term Post-Modernism. There is the ‘art-for-art’s-sake’ school of thought, which positively turns its nose up at the slightest whiff of moral instruction, striving instead to perform literary gymnastics with the text much to the alienation of so-called uninitiated readers, the if-you-haven’t-read-so-and-so-you-won’t-get-it school.

With or without these characteristics in a work, ‘literary fiction’ has shrunk, but why aren’t we looking closer at the readers? It’s not like they’re not influencing the market. Of course, we can’t deny some of the economic forces that are making for less elbow room for new authors at the various publishing houses, but the fact that they’re choosing to publish specific content speaks more to the readership rather than the homage-ridden, insular, vanity projects that MFA programs usually churn out.

Another point I’d like to make: people were reading less in the 1950s. For Americans, this represents an astounding increase of 47% in readership in 2005 compared to just over 20% in the 50s. These are from Gallup surveys, and can be found anywhere online. The quality of the books is another thing, which I say again, speaks more to the reader than some clandestine conspiracy by publishers. Readership brings up a lot of questions about education, quality of living and so on – just things to think about and needless for me to go into.
I think technology has more than risen to the occasion to meet the demands of modern living and maybe even to create a little demand, seeing how easy it is to get books online, legally or no, but also how less cumbersome they can be to carry around. E-readers can adjust the font size, contrast, among other things, not making the reader confined to the physical (and maybe even excluding) parameters of the physical book – it may even represent CARING on the part of publishers.
So, as you can see, there are many more factors to be considered. I will mention one more, this one coming from Neil Gaiman, who is a successful genre writer, insofar as he makes his living doing nothing but writing (editor’s note: not entirely true – he tours quite a bit). I’m sure Neil hates the term “genre” writing, preferring to consider himself as simply a writer. Anyway, Neil mentioned in a Tweet not long ago that among the rare figure that
contains published authors, a small percentage (maybe 1-3%) of that already minuscule percentage – involving writers who have merely, actually been published in the first place – actually make a living EXCLUSIVELY off of writing fiction.
The world is large.

(I took the liberty to make some quick edits as this was typed on a Blackberry. Apologies for any typos etc.)

Trish Monteath

I am not sure how I ended up on this blogsite and it sounds a bit too intellectual for me to be honest. Just thought you might be interested in views of a ‘genre’ reader . I read all sorts of genre fiction provided there is absolutely NO trace of literary fiction in it. I am however a voracious reader and probably read 3 or 4 books a week on my kindle. While for modern fiction I read exclusively genre fiction for any novels post about 1950s, I will read anything prior to 1960. In just the last 18 months I would have downloaded and read all works I could find by authors lsuch as Somerset Maugham, Anthony Trollope, Leo Tolstoy, Henry Rider Haggard, Ernest Hemingway, F Scot Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Evelyn Waugh and Mark Twain. I devour books by these authors and even obscure novelists from late nineteenth century to 1930s. From 1960 however the only authors I would read would be genre writers such as PD James, Michael Crichton, Peter James and Dean Koontz. I must admit I Found the comments here pretty condescending and elitist and completely on the wrong track as to reasons literary fiction is now dead. The fact is most real readers, people like me are essentially conservative by nature, we want there to be good guys and bad guys and we want the good guys to win. We want a moral, we want to be enlightened, moved, inspired. What we don’t want is esoteric ramblings or clever dick authors who seem to sneer at the reader and say ‘you are too stupid to understand so why dont you go read a comic’ . Literary fiction is boring, obscure, way too PC and they say nothing. They are a complete waste of a readers valuable time and as far as I am concerned there hasnt been a literary author worth a damn since Graham Greene died . Before the internet people read literary fiction simply because that was all that was reviewed, published and displayed in arty farty bookshops. I got so sick of being told that something was brilliant blah blah and be able to get through page 1 of a book without wanting to throw it across the room. Amazon and the Internet has liberated frustrated readers like me and I would place a large bet that 10 years from now literary fiction – by which I mean post 1960 literary fiction – will have effectively disappeared along with independent bookshops, and they will all go down blaming the stupid readers too thick to appreciate true art and never admit that their own supercilious vanity and condescension were the true authors of their own irrelevancy outside the rarefied world of incestuous prize giving and government subsidy.

Bernie Dowling

The literary fiction the Life of Pi is set to be a massive popular hit as a movie.
As for independent bookshops dying, that is most unlikely. I will take that large bet with you that both lit fic and indie bookshops will be doing quite well in 10 years time.
Isn’t it terrible that lit fic writers expect the reader to bring some energy and thought to reading their books. Far better to be manipulated like a Pavlovian dog, lapping up the same ol’ same ol’ of genre. I would have thought a genre writer is pretty condescending to their readers in wtiring the same book 20 times.

Bina Besiege

I dont think that literary fiction can die, there would be still many left who would love to read such great work!

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