Literary fiction: are all the canaries dead?

Literary Fiction: Post 1 of 3

Two recent reports, one in Canada and the other England, have brought to the fore how writers, particularly of literary fiction, are struggling.

The Writers’ Union of Canada released Devaluing Creators, Endangering Creativety (See full report) in 2015. One of its key findings was that writers incomes in this country have declined 27 per cent since 1998, and that incomes from writing for 80 per cent of writers are below the poverty line. Says the report:

These results represent a cultural emergency for Canadians. If we want a strong and diverse publishing and cultural industry, it is essential that creators are reasonably and fairly compensated… Devaluing Creators, Endangering Creativity, The Writers Union of Canada, 2015

Similarly, Literature in the 21st Century: Understanding Models of Support for Literary Fiction, (See full reportpublished by the Arts Council England, found that sales of literary fiction in England are below what they were in the 1990s, and fewer than 1,000 writers sell enough books to make a career of writing.

WHAT’S PUTTING THE SQUEEZE ON LITERARY FICTION?

When discussing digital disruption in the context of literature it is, perhaps, natural to focus first on the negatives: on the impact Amazon has had on earnings for authors and small publishers through its discounting policy; on the way in which social media, gaming, Netflix and smartphones all now clamour for our attention, collectively encroaching on the time we have to spend with a book… Arts Council England, 2017

While the quote above preludes a discussion about some of the digital opportunities available to literary fiction, there’s little doubt that books face challenges competing for audience in present-day arts, culture and entertainment environments, particularly books of literary fiction.

Why?

Premise #1 – The unique strength of literary fiction is also its achilles heel. Books, to a greater degree than movies or any other narrative form, do not simply take audiences into fictional realms, they engage readers in the creation of imaginary worlds. When a ‘reader’ buys a book – in print, digital or audio format – he’s taking on a project, a do-it-yourself kit of words, phrases and sentences, which he is expected to assemble in his own mind through the process of reading. It takes skill, concentration and imagination to read a book; in short, reading is a creative activity that requires effort.

Premise #2 – It’s a fool’s game for writers to try and compete with movies, TV and video games when it comes to immersive sensory experience. The power of movies and digital imagery to mimic, even exaggerate sense experience is their greatest strength.

Premise #3 – Individual books cannot access the same kind of promotional budgets available to competing narrative and story-based art forms. Nor do they have ready access to the variety and quality of  graphical elements that make for exciting ‘trailers’. And since books are purchased one-at-a-time, in competition with dozens of other titles on bookstore shelves, there are challenges to effective marketing.

Premise #4 – By and large, writers of literary fiction are not business people. The characterization of authors as distracted dreamers has never been accurate, but does contain a kernal of truth. Many writers experience and express human realities through a cycle of living to write and writing to live. The urge to get on with the next story, and not include the ‘business of writing’ in their creative process makes them somewhat oblivious and increasingly vulnerable to the harsh realities of publishing as a 21st Century enterprise.

PROGNOSIS

If writers and their cultural milieu don’t evolve, literary fiction will become specialized and moribund, a spent art form as relevant to future present moments as Egyptian hieroglyphics seem today. Is that alarmist? Anyone who had predicted the decline of the pharaohs in ancient time would not likely have been taken seriously; they probably would have been executed.

Reading as an activity is falling due to the plethora
of choices: streaming, box sets, games. I think there have only ever been so many “literary” readers, but they are increasingly distracted… Writer Nell Leyshon, Literature in the 21st Century, English Arts Council, 2017

That shoe is already dropping. It won’t make a sound ’til it hits the floor, and if action isn’t taken before then, it will be too late. But who do we expect to take action? Writers and their organizations are strenuously advocating for changes from government, the publishing industry, readers. It’s important those efforts be sustained and supported. It’s equally important they not be seen as solutions.

If literary writers don’t figure out ways to channel their creative energy through modern media, to modern audiences, no amount of advocating will perpetuate an art form that is absolutely crucial to a healthy society. Writers have to be the makers of a 21st Century literary renaissance. In the same way artists adapted to the advent of photography, musicians to the encoding of music on vinyl, dramatists to movies and TV, writers have to not only adapt to the digital age, they have to embrace it and show audiences new possibilities not achievable in other forms.

In short, the writing community has to advocate for change, but change that allows writers to tell stories in new, exciting ways.

Next instalment: Why is it important to support and sustain literary fiction?

Post 2: Literary Fiction: Why does it matter?
Post 3:
Literary Fiction: How do we make it work? (Coming Soon)

Written for The Federation of BC Writers
CSW