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?
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.