Books · Digital Publishing · Publishing · Self-publishing

Is Literary Fiction Dying?

Books of the non-digital variety. Image reproduced courtesy of Daniel Gilbey via Dreamstime Stock Photos.
Books of the non-digital variety. Image credit: Daniel Gilbey | Dreamstime Stock Photos.

Writer Charlie Hill recently published this article, in which he boldly asserts that “literary fiction is dying.”

Hmm … interesting. Provocative, too (in the best possible sense of the word). But is it true?

For a start, there’s the vexed question of what literary fiction actually is. Is it a catch-all term for works of literature which fall outside established genres? Is it intellectual, idea-oriented fiction? Is it – as someone once suggested to me – a euphemism for literature which doesn’t sell particularly well?

To his credit, Hill addresses this question, and defines literary fiction thus: “A genre of fiction that tries to do something with language, helps us to understand better what it means to be alive and changes the way we think about the world.”

That’s interesting. I think that many writers of genre fiction could honestly claim that they are attempting to do much the same thing. Many – probably most – writers want to “do something with language”. They want to work that elusive magic whereby words become more than arrows that point to distinct definitions, and sentences become more than the sum of their parts. They dream of those wonderful, rare moments when the words come to life on the page or screen, and resound with meaning.

Arguably, too, all fiction – including genre fiction – “helps us to understand better what it means to be alive and changes the way we think about the world.” After all, when you read someone else’s words you are, for a short while, seeing the world through their eyes, sharing their ideas, and trusting them to take you on a journey. Sometimes the journey is dreary and lacklustre, or at least not to your personal taste; sometimes it is exhilarating and enriching; but it almost always changes one’s outlook on the world, if only slightly and temporarily.

Hill is more contentious when he argues that e-publishing is “a distraction”.

“Today’s Electronic Publishing,” he writes, “is geared to the writer who can turn out a novel or two every year and to the reader who wants to read novels so constructed.”

Hmm. Sorry, Mr Hill, but I’m not at all sure why you’ve drawn this conclusion.

For a start, I don’t think that e-publishing favours one type of writer over another. Indeed, as far as I can see it’s a platform from which anyone who writes and wants to make the results public can do so, whether it’s under the auspices of a publishing house or on their own. I don’t really see why one has to write in a particular manner, or to a certain schedule, in order to reap the benefits of this situation.

In truth, I would have thought that there is a sense in which the writer of literary fiction is actually the ideal person to experiment with e-publishing, especially if they do so independently. The advantages strike me as being immense. For a start, such a writer would not have to justify their work in terms of its commercial viability. They could be as bold and experimental as they liked, without having to accommodate meddlesome editors. They could write completely in accord with their own vision and their own instincts and make the results available directly to anyone who cared to read them. They should surely be salivating at such a prospect.

Why, furthermore, does Hill think that readers who use Kindles and Nooks and other such devices represent a particular and precisely delineated section of the reading public as a whole? In my experience, this simply is not true.

I’d say that I was a fairly average reader. I have a Kindle, and I use it; I also buy print books. My tastes are fairly wide-ranging. I like genre fiction; I also like literary and general fiction. I’ll happily read both the latest bestseller and rather more, er, alternative works. In certain moods I simply like to be entertained; in other moods I’m up for something altogether more challenging.

I don’t know whether literary fiction is dying. I doubt it; but even if it is, I’d say that e-publishing actually represents a golden opportunity to reinvigorate it.

Come on, Mr Hill, jump aboard the e-publishing train! Even if it turns out to be “a diversion”, it should at least be a pretty harmless one.

If anyone has any comments, please feel free…


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