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.