Literary fiction is in crisis. A new chapter of funding authors must begin…

By Claire Armitstead  on The Guardian

Finally it’s official: literary fiction is in crisis, and writers across the land are burning the midnight oil in their garrets, teaching or slogging away in unrelated jobs to keep the fire ablaze in the grate. This Dickensian picture was revealed by Arts Council England today in a report that suggests it may have to shift its funding priorities in order to save a population whose economic and cultural solvency has been chipped away over the years.

So why has it come to this, and how much does it really matter? The first thing to be clear about is that people are not necessarily reading less – print sales of books across fiction, nonfiction and children’s titles rose almost 9% in the UK last year, while on Tuesday market analysts Nielsen BookScan will reveal that sales over the all-important Christmas period have risen 20% since 2013.

But it’s undoubtedly true that in the age of the smartphone and streaming services, books face unprecedented competition for our attention; and that when we do choose a book over a film or social media feed, we are choosing less adventurously. Last year’s chart-topper was JK Rowling’s (and Jack Thorne’s) play script for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Rowling also appeared in 12th, 28th , 64th and 95th place, the latter as her alter ego, crime writer Robert Galbraith – a success due to the combination of branding and familiarity that can keep a bandwagon rolling for years if not decades. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials follow-up, La Belle Sauvage, has sold nearly a quarter of a million copies since October.

Authors who have become intergenerational as their original young readers have grown up do particularly well from this tendency for familiarity to breed affection. But it is not confined to children’s writers. The final volume of Hilary Mantel’s very literary, very grownup Thomas Cromwell trilogy will be guaranteed mega-sales when it finally hits the stands.

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9 thoughts on “Literary fiction is in crisis. A new chapter of funding authors must begin…

  1. Reblogged this on writerchristophfischer and commented:
    A fascinating and scary article for writers and readers alike:
    Literary fiction in crisis as sales drop dramatically, Arts Council England reports
    New figures show that fewer UK writers earn enough to live on, as ACE blames falling sales of literary fiction on the recession and the rise of smartphones

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am not sure, but it appears that many genre novels, are quite literally, literary, for example, “The Winter Sea” by Susanna Kearsley and “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah, if in fact, literary means: to provoke a poetic or evocative effect on the reader. Thank you for a very informative post and perhaps, the meaning of literary in the publishing world needs an update, that includes genre novels that are beautifully written, poetic and evocative.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting piece, though from my perspective I have a bit of a bias against literary fiction because the term ‘literary’, here in NZ, is used as a term for validating the status, power and intellectual prestige of a very snobbish in-crowd of ‘artistes’ who style themselves ‘wraiters’ (say it aloud…) even if they aren’t, and who use that self-asserted status as a bludgeon with which to invalidate and belittle the worth and skills of ‘genre’ writers. It’s got to the point where it’s impossible for anybody outside their in-crowds to get funding, to be looked at by some of the publishers, or to even be recognised as having any talent. My take? Writing’s about engaging people, and who – really – is going to be engaged by pretentious novels designed to display the ego of its author? The irony is that New Zealand’s highest paid author, who’s regularly on the NYT best-selling list, pens vampire romance fiction…and, when pushed on interview to reveal her usual income, wouldn’t – but said it was more than that of a partner in the law firm she left in order to pursue her novel-writing career…

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m left wondering what are they going to do about it? Give arts council grants to the worthy? (which tends to mean those already in the magic circle)
    But one or two people have commented that people don’t read much literary fiction anyway and never did.
    Actually I think they ought to give money to fantasy poets who have the decency to dabble in prose. It’s a small select group and so wouldn’t cost them too much 🙂

    But in reality, it’s an interesting question they ask, but what can they do about it? Write more interesting books? Don’t ask me, if I knew the answer I’d be sitting somewhere warm and one of my interns would be ghosting this for me 🙂

    Liked by 2 people


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