A love affair with Literary Fiction? - Louise Boland

The Prince of Mirrors - Alan Robert Clark
At the end of the last year, just before Christmas, the Arts Council released a report confirming something everybody already knew but had been too scared to say.  

Finally, the elephant in the room was pointed out and someone took a sharp intake of breath at the sight of the emperor’s new clothes.  Yes, I am talking about the Arts Council’s report, Literature in the 21st Century: Understanding Models of Support for Literary Fiction, In case you missed it, the report concluded that… literary fiction in the UK is officially in ‘Crisis’.

Actually, it never said the word ‘crisis’ in that context, that was how the press represented it. What it really said was that ‘this was not an easy time for literary fiction’. 

Art Council Report
It calculated that print sales of literary fiction in the UK are significantly below where they stood in the noughties, and that there has not been a corresponding increase in literary fiction ebook sales to offset this (as has been the case for the genre and commercial fiction which currently predominate in ebook format).

Anyone who has been paying attention might know that last year we started up Fairlight Books with the specific aim of publishing literary fiction in the UK (crazy fools, I know!). We did it because we could see how difficult it was becoming for writers of literary fiction to get an agent and to get published.  We felt that self-publishing didn’t work as well for literary fiction as it did for genre writers and that, ipso facto, the end result of all this would be readers purchasing less literary fiction. So it was reassuring, if a little unnerving, to see that belief quantifiably demonstrated in the Art’s Council release.

The report suggests a number of reasons for why the above has occurred, all good views and all definitely part of the puzzle. My personal view (and I’m very open to arguments against this or to hear how things stand in comparison in other countries)… is that literary fiction faced a perfect storm over the last ten to fifteen years in the UK – arising from the phenomenal success of Fifty Shades, the phenomenal success of Gone Girl, and the phenomenal success of the near-constant innovator, Amazon, in promoting series and genre fiction.

As agents and commissioning editors became fixated on finding the next Fifty Shades / Gone Girl or in finding books with which to feed Amazon’s genre/series-loving algorithms, literary fiction took a back seat.  But is this just a blip? Or have UK readers permanently ‘dumbed down’ so that they can no longer on average / on mass / in the median cope with complicated fiction?

I guess starting up Fairlight Books had to that come from a belief that the problem wasn’t that there was no longer a market for readers who want to read ‘literary’ fiction, but that there was a market failure that was making it less accessible to them (ie see the perfect storm theory above).

One of the interesting things that came from the report was the debate it started on social media about what ‘literary’ fiction actually is, whether there is a need for it, whether it should be subsidized and whether people actually want to read it anymore.

One commentator asked ‘Why should we subsidise writers who have lost the plot?’ and quoted Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing as an example of writing that had ‘lost the plot’.

Personally, I think that’s a little unfair as it belies the sweep of what ‘literary fiction’ entails and because there will always be (and should always be) occasional novels which challenge boundaries in terms of content and prose style and move literature forward.

But for every award winning, experimental, literary fiction novel in existence, there are many beautifully crafted, readable, well-researched literary works which are huge sellers. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies being obvious examples.

These books show that there is still a market for literary fiction out there – but that we need to support the UK’s writers of literary fiction so that they don’t give up their craft and turn their creative energies elsewhere, and we need to make sure that literary fiction is accessible to readers.  


Jan Needle said…
I'm glad you mentioned Hilary Mantel. For me, she and Kate Atkinson are what literary fiction ought to be, and most of the lionised 'literary giants' just...well...aren't. I've unashamedly given up trying to read Booker Prize winners, because so few of them strike me as being worth the candle. I don't know who's more pretentious, the authors, or the critics and opinion-formers who build them up, but either way, these books leave me cold (and better off, because I no longer buy them!) I've never read Fifty Shades, having always thought page-turning and porn were mutually incompatible activities, but I read Gone Girl before it became famous, and from memory, its USP is the quality of the writing. As with Mantel and Atkinson the prose is transcendent in itself.

I know this is a horrible generalisation, and I'm probably in a minority of one. But my problem with most literary fiction is that it ain't as good as it thinks it is. I had that Marcel Proust in the back of my cab once...I wish it had been Caroline. (Now there's an obscure literary reference for you. She's the actor who play Laure in Engrenages. Show off!)
Dennis Hamley said…
Jan, I've got myself in a situation where I have to read Booker shortlist books (well, some of them anyway) because for the last two years I've been on Writers in Oxford's 'Not the Booker' panel. Good fun and nice to hear how other people whose judgement I trust see things. Last year, my main book was 'Elmet' by Fiona Mozley, a way-out,ambitious, eccentric and absolutely riveting first novel. It's the sort of book the Booker was first made for. It seemed to end up as a sort of 'damned with faint praise' laughing-stock. Perhaps it was because it had a very strong plot, which inevitably led to very strong characters set in a background horrifyingly realistic yet also fantastic - and much closer to home for comfort. If this isn't literary fiction then I give up. Still, in EM Forster's Aspects of the Novel, he has the old man saying with a wistful and regretful sigh, 'Ah yes, the novel must have a plot.' Yes, it damn well does. What people say is only made significant by what they do. But perhaps a lifetime writing YA books has turned my wits!

Louise, I agree very much with your central point. May Fairlight prosper and do great things!
Anonymous said…
I didn't think I'd have the courage to comment honestly on current literary fiction, until I read the two comments above. I'm sure you're right, Louise, about the Fifty Shades problem and the Amazon steamroller effect but I wonder if the dominance of page-turning fiction actually highlights a major defect (in my view) of most of the lit fic I've read in the last couple of decades (exceptions being the extraordinary Hilary Mantel, A S Byatt and Rohinton Mistry, but we're already going back in time now). It seems that to qualify for lit fic your writing needs to be exceptionally beautiful (which I admire enormously) but a realistic, gripping plot that actually works - vital to every other kind of fiction - is somehow way down the list of priorities. I belong to a small book group which struggles to find recent books we actually want to read and we often end up with a classic instead. All power to you with Fairlight books!
Susan Price said…
Louise, I was going to ask -- and it's a genuine question, not a disguised snipe -- how you would define 'literary fiction.'

It does puzzle me. Like Jan, I love Mantel's novels - but I would call Wolf Hall 'historical fiction' and therefore 'genre.' It's an exceptionally good historical novel but still an 'historical.' (Same could be said about her brilliant 'Place of Greater Safety.') So at what point does a genre novel become 'literature'?

I love Kate Atkinson too and have read most, I think, of her Jackson Brodie books. They're 'detectives' and therefore genre -- but exceptionally good genre. (Love their titles: When Will There Be Good News? -- Started Early, Took The Dog.)

I also loved her 'Life After Life' which has a strong plot. It's handled in an original, twisty way -- but does having a plot make it Genre? Another 'historical' perhaps?

I didn't read Mantel or Atkinson because they were 'literature.' I read them because I liked what I heard about them: tried them (Amazon samples!), loved them, got stuck in.

And then, Dickens... I've read hardly any Dickens. My brother has galloped through most of them and loves them, but certainly wouldn't call himself a reader of 'literature.' (Most of the rest of his reading is Science Fiction. Genre,though often of high originality and quality). When Dickens was alive, he was 'popular.' Only now do we call him 'great literature.

Sorry to go on -- and I really do wish you luck with Fairlight Books -- but as you can see this whole matter of distinguishing between 'genre' and 'literary' novels puzzles me greatly.
Jan Needle said…
Good call on Dickens, Sue. He was born, like me, in Portsmouth (altho a few years older) and also, like me, a journalist. Could be wrong, but I believe his main driver as a writer was the need/desire to make a lorra lorra money, and bugger genre. As for literature, I've only ever managed a few of his books, which might say something about literature, me, or being born in Pompey. Who knows?
Louise Boland said…
Hi Susan, I think that’s a totally valid question – and for me the answer is that there isn’t really a distinction between genre and literary, more a grey slide from ‘literary fiction’ (which could be genre!) to ‘non-literary’. I’d say for a book to fall into the literary bracket as we would see it, it’s likely to have high quality prose (which could be simple or sparse like Hemingway, poetic or else experimental in style like A Brief History of Seven Killings), and in some way it should be unique in terms of its subject matter, setting or themes. Plus, if it’s set in the past or based on some scientific question, you’d expect it to be pretty well researched.

So, from our list's point of view, a book could be literary and still be genre, so long as it hits the above. I guess Hilary Mantel is a great example of this as her writing ticks all the boxes above and yet is most definitely within the historical genre category. Same with Vonnegut for science fiction, I’d argue. And both have the added bonus of being genuinely readable and enjoyable.

But I’m sure if I’ve got that wrong from an academic point of view, Dennis will correct me, as he taught me pretty much everything I know!

Thank you all for the wishes of good luck with Fairlight – and Griselda, I’m happy (perversely!) to hear that your reading group struggles to find well written fiction with realistic gripping plots because that’s exactly the sort of fiction we’re going to be publishing in June and July of this year. A friend of mine once said he only reads dead people for exactly that reason, and I was determined to find some fiction to publish and tempt him back to the land of the living! So please do add The Prince of Mirrors by Alan Robert Clark to your reading list for June – I guarantee your book group won’t be disappointed, and I’ll be back with more details of our July releases as soon as I can as they also sound just the ticket.
Susan Price said…
Thanks for answering my question -- and I shall have to check out Fairlight's list.
Enid Richemont said…
The success of the Fifty Shades continues to baffle me. I looked at a couple in a charity shop, and the writing is AWFUL!
I had an odd experience with Dickens. Couldn't deal with him at all when I was much younger, although I loved the films and dramas based on his books. Then I was given a Kindle, and for some reason I've forgotten, the first book I put on it was Great Expectations. I absolutely lapped it up, loved it. Strange.
Umberto Tosi said…
"...the problem wasn’t that there was no longer a market for readers who want to read ‘literary’ fiction, but that there was a market failure that was making it less accessible to them..." I could not agree more. In fact, many if not most book "trends" turn out to be self-fulfilling projections by institutional and corporate gatekeepers (reacting to the 'trends' they've created.) Fortunately, visionary efforts like yours tend to rebalance things after a cycle or two. I support those efforts as (I hope) a literary writer, and an editor of Chicago Quarterly Review, a 27-year-old journal of literary fiction, nonfiction and poetry, doing our best to keep up the faith as well.
Jane said…
Isn’t there a part of most writers that crave to write literary fiction rather than genre? Certainly I do. Literary fiction is my preferred reading material as well as what all my professors steered me towards, at least for the first part of my education. And yet I still haven’t the courage to attempt such brave originality which makes an endeavor like Fairlight Press all the more exciting.
janedwards said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
janedwards said…
I agree with Umberto on this.

I was a book seller for many years and have long suspected the demise of literary and/or main stream fiction has more to do with the death of bricks and mortar book shops and libraries than in any genuine change in reading tastes.

Online book selling, however complex the search engines, does not allow for browsing in the same way that perusing real shelves will.

I wish you all luck with the imprint!
Andrew Crofts said…
Almost finished reading "The Tale of Senyor Rodriguez". Very well written and a real page turner. I wonder if defining it as "literary fiction" might frighten some people off, suggesting they are going to have to work hard when what they are looking for is a well written story into which they can escape for a few hours.
Louise Boland said…
Hi Enid, that's interesting about you returning to Dickens but then I find with books and films sometimes you need to be at a point in your life when you are 'ready' for it. There are definitely films and books I didn't get when I was younger, but love now, and visa versa.
And I agree completely with what you are saying Umberto and Jan - its the physical book stores that support great writing because if they love a book they will recommend it and hand sell it.
Louise Boland said…
Totally agree with you, Jane, I love Graham Greene and always try to write as well as him, but it never works. I guess you just have to work with what comes out naturally.
And Andrew - I'm glad you enjoyed Senyor Rodriguez, please do try The Prince of Mirrors when it comes out in June. I'd say this one definitely falls into the literary bucket (the prose is poetic without being overly flowery and the subject matter fantastically well researched) but its definitely also a very enjoyable read, so we are hoping it will do well.
Anonymous said…
Thanks Louise, I’ll certainly keep a lookout for Prince of Mirrors. SO glad that with Fairlight you aim to bring good plots back to literary fiction, where they belong alongside high quality writing. Hurrah!

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