Sometimes it’s impossible to scream. You feel the pressure on your lungs but the noise just doesn’t emerge from your lips. It gets stuck somewhere in your throat behind your deep and paralysing frustration.
You will have known, yourself, those rare moments in life when somebody says or does something that simply exceeds your ability to respond. They leave you speechless. It’s like a footballer faced with an open goal. There’s simply so many places to slot the shot that they scuff it entirely and send it flying over the crossbar.
That’s how I felt today when I heard that The Arts Council have reported a “collapse” in the sales of literary fiction.
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Red-faced emoji snorting steam…
Deep breath. Let’s start slowly. Keep calm.
The problem isn’t that literary publishing is in crisis but that publishing is not yet aware of the crisis it is itself making. A collapse in literary fiction is like the death of bumble bees. It is the first easy thing to predict and a sign of something far worse that’s yet to come.
Human beings are creatures of habit. It’s one of our great virtues. There’d be no great pyramids if the builders had got up one morning and decided they’d make it a cube… No, no… How about a rhombus? A torus? A large Egyptian duck? In other words: we stick with what we know. This is nowhere more obvious than in our book-buying habits. Want to know how hard it is to sell a strange book concept to a general reader? Try persuading them that a book of monk cartoons are the perfect gift for atheists. They’ll look at you blankly before picking up “The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump” or “Shakespeare in Fluff”, a book of 28 iconic scenes from Shakespeare played by small animals in costume. Welcome to my life…
This is a problem shared by literary fiction where experimental invention challenges our presumptions about what a book should be. The writing is often much less difficult than the marketing. Anybody can stick their imagination into first gear and rattle out a premise for a hugely imaginative novel but not many readers would risk £8.99 of their hard-earned on, let’s say, the eyebrow hopping adventures of Jerimiah Toolpouch, Victorian flea and explorer who witnessed a changing world from the depths of Anthony Trollope’s facial hair. The more unique and challenging a book, the less likely is it to attract a readership. That’s why genre fiction generally does quite well. We are buying what we already know.
Yet somewhere our love for the “known” becomes unhealthy. It sometimes means that we refuse to let go of what we’ve previous liked. In the past decade, our bookshops have become dominated by the dead. Tom Clancy, Dick Francis and Robert Ludlum are more prolific today than they ever were before they died in 2013, 2010 and 2001,respectively. “Roger Hargreaves” is still churning out “Mr Men” books and, of course, there’s always something new by Tolkien to enjoy. Not that any of these writers actually write books from beyond the grave but their names are used to sell new novels. Publishers, of course, are playing a cunning game. Covers are cleverly presented that make it look like the name above the title is the name of the author. Yet there’s something here that’s insidious. “Tom Clancy’s Point of Contact” (2017) was written by Mike Maden but Mike Maden’s name is not the name you remember. He’s certainly the writer whose career you invest time in supporting. The same is true of all writers of these posthumous books whose own talents and voices are stifled whilst the reputations of the dead authors are tarnished by these pastiches of their style. Publishers continue to make money but, make no mistake, the market is diminished.
The situation has now become faintly ridiculous. The relatively well-known genre writer, Eric Van Lustbader, has written more Jason Bourne books (11) than were written by Robert Ludlum (3) yet they are still marketed as “Robert Ludlum’s™” followed by the title. Ian Fleming wrote only twelve full-length James Bond novels but there have been 29 since his death in 1964. Arguably the only successful post-Fleming novels were “Colonel Sun”, by Kingsley Amis, in 1968, and “The Authorized Biography” by John Pearson in 1973. There were two series of largely forgettable books by John Gardener and Raymond Benson until 2008 when the estate of Ian Fleming began to take matters more seriously. A series of high profile authors were meant to elevate the franchise but, even here, they only proved that Sebastian Faulks, Jeffrey Deaver, William Boyd, and Anthony Horowitz could only really write books by, respectively, Sebastian Faulks, Jeffrey Deaver, William Boyd, and Anthony Horowitz.
If the continued dominance by the dead weren’t bad enough for the new generation of writers, then consider the dubious publishing model of the world’s “most bestselling author”. James Patterson has “published” 16 books in 2017 alone, many “presented by James Patterson” but others having the telltale “and” on the front cover… Written by James Patterson and some other author.
Patterson might be a decent writer of thrillers (it would be churlish to argue otherwise) but he clearly has an even greater gift for business. He was previously an advertising executive at J. Walter Thompson and it’s that eye for promotion that clearly wins through. His name dominates genre crime fiction. Smaller bookshops (and certainly at retail outlets such as supermarkets where books are bought by the casual shopper) are dominated by Patterson’s books. It’s often a wonder that there’s room for anybody else and, very often, there isn’t!
Dead writers and the somewhat vampiric nature of the James Patterson school of publishing are two problems that the industry has created to fool itself into thinking it has a healthy business model. The third is even more obvious problem and requires an even deeper breath to explain.
Writing a book is difficult and in a way that’s doubly true of genre fiction. It’s easy to ride on the unstructured wanderings of your imagination for 120,000 words, unconcerned by the wants and expectations of a reader. It’s much harder to write a tightly plotted novel that draws the reader into a fictional world. You might know this if you’ve ever tried it. The first 10,000 words fly by. The second 10,000 are not quite so quick. By the time you reach 50,000 words (not even half way), you begin to stare up at the enormous wall blocking your way forward.
Which makes it surprising to see that multiple World snooker champion, Ronnie O’Sullivan, not only got over the wall once but that he’s scaled it twice in the past twelve months. Ronnie O’Sullivan published “Framed” in June 2017 and followed it up with “Double Kiss” in November 2017. Published by serious industry player, Macmillan, they also have the honour of appearing first in hardback, which, for any new author, is a real sign of a major talent.
The fatuous myth that “anybody can write a book” is cherished most in the world of the celebrity novel. Ghostwriting remains one of those areas of the business least spoken about and there will be those who doubt whether O’Sullivan did actually sit down and write both of these books entirely alone. It would also be unfair to single him out when the industry is guilty of the same cynical game of exploiting fame in one area to sell books in another. The fault – in so far as it is a fault – might well lie with the reading public who form that strange conclusion that an ability to shove balls around a table means they’re naturally suited to shoving words around a page.
The truth is that we want what we already know and the publishing industry is only too happy to give us that, even if that means six autobiographies by Katie Price along with eleven novels and two books for children. Yet how healthy is it for the industry, the readers, or, specifically, writers who haven’t James Patterson’s reputed $700 million fortune? For those new writers, Christmas is a dreadful time to visit bookshops. Your book is usually hidden on shelves (or, even worse) not actually stocked and you have to hear those soul chilling words “we can order it in for you” which ensures your book will never sell. The public queue up and bulk buy their celebrity autobiographies that will soon be passed on, unread, to the charity shops. They buy the new books by the authors they know so well but who have been dust, in some cases, ten years or more. Meanwhile new living writers are lost and destined to fail.
And then, when the Arts Council publish a report saying that literary fiction is dying, people wonder why…
So, please, do yourself a favour this Christmas. Go buy a book by an author who is living and needs your patronage. It needn’t be mine (though, of course, The Secret Lives of Monks is the perfect stocking filler for the atheists in your family). It could be a book by any of the new talents that are waiting to emerge and would already be household names if it weren’t for the way publishing is organised.
Adopt an unknown writer for Christmas and, perhaps, next Christmas, they will no longer be unknown and we can talk about a resurgence of our literary culture and all the wonderful things which are sure to follow.