Literary Fiction and Self-Publishing

James Scott Bell

English novelist Will Self writes literary fiction. You can tell, because in an essay on the “death” of the novel, he writes: “There is now an almost ceaseless murmuring about the future of narrative prose. Most of it is at once Panglossian and melioristic…”
When you use Panglossianand melioristic in the same sentence, you’re not exactly trying to communicate to the masses—which is one way to describe literary fiction!
I tease because I love. Literary fiction is by definition more challenging for the reader than the so-called “beach read.” It’s supposed to be. Which is why it does not sell in huge numbers.
Which does not mean anything in terms of quality or reasons to exist. I love a good literary read. And I laud those who choose to write less marketable prose out of a certain calling and love of literature. This often produces books that move and even shape us, that require us to ponder deep things and perhaps make us the better for it.
Indeed, there is even research to suggest that literary fiction makes us nicer than does its more popular cousin!
Let’s be honest, though. Just because something is considered “literary” doesn’t make it, perforce, superb. I’ve read some dreadful fiction published under impressive imprints. Why does that happen? Have a look at a famous essay if you want to delve more deeply into that little matter.
Will Self has a view of the literary novel that goes like this (note: pack a lunch):
The literary novel used to be “the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour. The capability words have when arranged sequentially to both mimic the free flow of human thought and investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other aesthetic modes and even mimic them. All this led to a general acknowledgment: the novel was the true Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.”
Now, I have to admit this very paragraph is a challenge. I am left wondering what the Gesamtkunstwerk is actually being said. I think I may have strained my simulacrum trying to read it. (I leave open the possibility that Self is running a bit of a goof on us, but I digress).
So yes, let’s settle on the fact that lit-fic can be “difficult” for the reader. As even a favorable review of Self’s latest book admits, “The novel isn’t exactly light reading.”
Then Will Self gets to the crux of the matter: “[T]he hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations.”
He has a point, though I’m not sure it’s limited to contemporary culture. As Mickey Spillane once explained, salted peanuts always outsell caviar.
The bigger challenge today, I think, is technological. As Stephen Henighan, in a thoughtful piece, observes:
More than a decade ago, when I moved to the university town where I teach, it was common to see students reading books on municipal buses. Now, with the exception of the occasional nerd stuck into a fantasy novel, or a diligent student poring over a diagram-filled textbook on her lap, this sight has disappeared. The students travel in stooped postures, jabbing their cellphones with their thumbs. Most of this jabbing is texting, or playing solitaire; but even when the students are browsing online course readings, what they are doing is not reading, because they are not performing an act of concentration, but rather one of perpetual distraction.
This leaves the writer of lit-fic in somewhat dicey circumstances. Traditional publishing has to make a profit, and so must concentrate on the tastes of the book-buying public––which is increasingly for distraction, entertainment, and short chapters. There is less time to nurture a literary career and less money to advance toward a livable income.
Yet this is not news, either. Literary writers of the past almost always had to supplement their incomes, many times by teaching creative writing at the college or graduate level.
A few made extra bank by churning out genre fiction on the side, using a pseudonym. Evan Hunter (The Blackboard Jungle) always considered himself a literary writer. But he needed money, so he cranked out pulp stories and paperbacks under the name Ed McBain. His pseudonym became a world-famous multi-millionaire. I don’t think Evan Hunter ever forgave him for that.
Gore Vidal wrote mysteries as Edgar Box.
So here’s my question for those who think the novel is “dead”: why shouldn’t literary fiction find vibrant new life in the world of self-publishing?
Let’s compare:
The chances of selling a lot of lit-fic copies the traditional way are slim. Look at the average sales of books nominated for the National Book Award. Two or three thousand, tops.
Now, the chances of selling a lot of copies of literary fiction via self-publishing are also slim. But time is on the side of the indie. 
A traditional book that doesn’t catch fire in the first couple of weeks is out of the bookstores for good, except perhaps on the remainder shelf.
But an indie title is always available and the author can do several things to move units, such as deal-alert services like BookGorilla and BookBub (which currently has 810,000 subscribers on their literary fiction list). Or just getting out there and plowing ground in social media.
Discoverability seems more likely in the indie world, too. Placing a literary novel in the right categories can unleash Amazon’s algorithmic ability to match author and reader. Contrast that with trying to get a book some real estate in the increasingly limited space within physical bookstores, which also have to make money and tend to be top-heavy with commercial fare.
In fact, I can see a whole new wave of literary authors gaining a cultural foothold via self-publishing. Something tells me that David Foster Wallace would have been all over self-pubbing had he come along at a later time.
So the novel is not dead––it’s spread.
Literary fiction need not go extinct––it can reproduce in various forms in the verdant world of indie publishing.
Why not? I ask. 

26 thoughts on “Literary Fiction and Self-Publishing

  1. My cousin Leonard once stepped out of our time machine right into an entire horde of Panglosian Meleorists and let me tell you that their blue scales and barbed claws were utterly terrifying to hear him tell it. Amidst the combat, upon reaching the apogee of commonsensical similacrum, and having dulled his axe blade against Panglosian scales, he turned his back to them, pressed his hands against the wall, jutted his rear toward them and blew their minds with a highly energetic Gesamtkunstwerk. Thus he barely escaped with his life and his Gesamtkuns intact.

    Gesamtkunstwerk – the act of vigorously shaking one’s Gesamtkun in a sexually suggestive manner

  2. In all seriousness, it is an established tradition that language like “Gesamtkunstwerk” be used in literary fiction (or non-fiction)?

    Does it have to read that “stuffy”?

    Because I would challenge it might not be dying or “dead” as Will put it, if more people could in fact read it.

    And, I would also challenge that you could write to a higher grade level if you must, to tell your story.

    Literary fiction must only offer deliberate commentary, it doesn’t have to sound like it came from the 18th century. At least, I think so.

    Should it?

    • My definition of literary fiction is anything used in an English lit class. I recall reading both Amy Tan and Sherman Alexi for American lit, but I didn’t need a dictionary at my elbow to understand either. I enjoyed them immensely, although they were a little dark for my usual reading tastes.


  3. ‘you’re not exactly trying to communicate to the masses—which is one way to describe literary fiction’

    I think that’s one way to describe a certain type of lit fiction. The literary fiction I enjoy reading is better described as an exercise in voyeurism. You’re peeking through blinds or sitting quietly in the corner watching, listening, as the character deals with, successfully or not, the situation he’s created or found himself in. . I believe in ‘Plot and Structure’ you graphed out the differing plot lines of lit and comm. fiction. And I’m not always a fan of happy endings so there’s another appeal that literary fiction has for me.

  4. Interesting post, Jim. There certainly is something to be said for producing your story, your way, without concern for its commercial value…”those who choose to write less marketable prose out of a certain calling and love of literature.”

    I watched a movie last night that reminded me of this very subject: BEGIN AGAIN, with Keira Knightley (Pride and Prejudice) and Mark Ruffalo. It is the musical parallel of what you are discussing, producing the art for the love of the art, and then…I won’t spoil the movie for you. Some great scenes in there. I was going to email you this morning, but your post is on the same subject.

    I believe we need BOTH the “easy” and the “difficult,” the quick accessible clip art and the masterpiece by the starving artist, the Muzak to keep us soothed and the symphony by Beethoven to inspire, the quick enjoyable beach read and the challenging literary work.

    Oh, for the time, ability, and financial wherewith-all to do both.

  5. Just for fun, I tried to translate Mr. Self’s statement into English:

    The literary novel used to the “prince of art forms,” the apogee of creative endeavor. When words are arranged to mimic thought and explore human interactions; when words are shaped into a believable representation of the real world or even invented ones; when the novel leads to self-analysis and describes other aesthetic modes – all of this leads to one point we can all acknowledge: The novel is the ideal art form.

    Or at least I think that’s what he’s saying.

  6. Personally, I consider poetry to be the prince of all written art forms.
    Wagner used to call his operas “music dramas” because they were so much more than mere opera.

  7. James Scott Bell–thanks for a nice try on behalf of literary fiction. But if your strap-hanger now sees what were in the past acts of concentration (reading) in students riding the bus replaced these days by acts “of perpetual distraction,” I don’t see why indie publishing should make any difference. Even commercial fiction as we now know it seems at risk. I imagine the kind of “breakthrough, game-changing” sort of thing at the heart of Mark Alpert’s TKZ post yesterday will end up filling the bill for those in need of perpetual distraction: click lit.

  8. After being misinterpreted in my post regarding yesterday’s subject matter, I find myself hesitant to share my opinion today.

    However, in spite of the fear I might be misinterpreted again, I will share my thoughts here.

    I love literary fiction. It’s like gazing up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

    It distresses me to see young head slouching over tiny screens. Look up! Look up and see the wonder!

    But I understand JSB’s assertion as well. Self-publishing might in fact be able to lay itself in the path of those with downcast eyes and capture their attention. And if not, it is saved for posterity to be discovered and revered perhaps centuries later like the notebooks of Da Vinci.

    There is wonder to be found down rabbit holes, and imperialist head cleavers too. My point yesterday applies to today as well and I will state it far more plainly here.

    It is up to us as artists of the word to use all resources wisely. Some will exploit it. Some might sell out. Some will choose causes that are not approved of by others.

    But if we refuse to find ways to express ourselves with the medium of the times, then perhaps we are more foolish and short sighted than those who seek the distractions of the day.

  9. Wren–
    You weren’t misinterpreted yesterday. You were correctly interpreted. And you can’t have it both ways. If you love literary fiction, and think “it’s like gazing up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel,” then you must be prepared to distinguish between what’s vulgar commercialism and what’s not. If you are prepared to make this distinction, then you won’t be happy serving as an apologist for crass materialism. We aren’t talking about “artists of the word” who “use all resources wisely,” or who are breaking new ground by finding “ways to express ourselves with the medium of the times….” We are talking about clever, market-driven manipulations of both the marketplace and of technology. To the degree Michelangelo manipulated “the medium of the times” by painting on wet plaster to make frescoes, there is some comparison. Otherwise, not so much.

    • Nope, I meant “verdant.” If I’d written about “soil” and not “world” I might have used “fecund,” but then I would have chucked it because I don’t like the word.

      It’s a language thing.

Comments are closed.