|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.