The Decline of ‘Lit Fic’

Bookstore Shelves

I have some concerns about the state of literary fiction in Australia. And what follows here is largely anecdotal – I haven’t done all the research via BookScan figures nor gone through all the data. But I have concerns, mostly about the exposure of literary content, and where commercialism inevitably appears to be shifting the market.

Also, this is not about my latest book. I mean, it is, but only by extension – I honestly don’t know how well ONE is selling, or isn’t as the case may be. But being an author of literary fiction, I am, of course, concerned from a selfish standpoint as well. But it’s not just that.

Here’s the thing: Several times in recent years, I’ve heard about a great novel, and I’ve gone looking for it in a bookstore and haven’t been able to find it. Now, more book sales have shifted online, so of course, I can find it there, but there’s something about physically holding a book, about smelling it, seeing the words right there on the paper. That experience can’t be replicated via digital means.

Has that stopped me buying said book? In some cases, yes, and that raises a concern about discovery. Are people buying fewer books – particularly literary works – because of lack of exposure? And does that, by extension, skew sales stats, which then leads to even fewer booksellers stocking more literary fiction?

Certainly, there’s an argument to be raised around this – the biggest bookseller in Australia is Big W, which only stocks commercial fiction. The biggest chain bookstores (QBD and Dymocks) also both increasingly emphasize commercial novels. And that makes sense, as that’s what makes them the most money, but it also means that when people go looking for a book, they’re now far less likely to discover a new literary fiction work, and that must also have an influence on upcoming and aspiring authors who see what’s in bookstores and factor that, inevitably, into what they need to write to become a published author.

Is that healthy for literary culture?

Last year, an Australia Council/Macquarie University study found that literary fiction was the least popular book category in Australia.

As reported by The Australian:

“The most popular genre is crime, mystery and thriller novels, followed by biography and memoir, cookbooks and historical fiction. A minority of readers, 48%, say they are interested in literary fiction, but here’s the knockout number: only 15% actually read it.”

You can see how that data is reflected in what the aforementioned retailers stock, and such findings have been reinforced by various other studies which have examined the slow demise of ‘lit fic’. Consequently, that also means there’s less money for literary writers – research conducted in 2015 showed that authors of literary fiction were the most likely to report that “insufficient income from their writing prevents them from spending more time on writing”.

Does that mean writers need to tailor their content to fit into a changing market, as opposed to writing what best fits their work? And if so, what does that mean in practice?

Chuck Palahniuk touched on this somewhat in a recent interview with Joe Rogan, using the example of Cheryl Strayed and her book ‘Wild’. Wild, which went on to become a major commercial hit (and was turned into a movie by Reese Witherspoon’s production company), originally included one particularly disturbing scene which Strayed’s publishers removed. Why? Because they wanted it to be a ‘big’ book, they wanted it in all the bookstores, and some of the major commercial outlets, they knew, wouldn’t stock it if it included such content.

That changes how people approach writing, right? And if all you see in bookstores is commercial, potentially gentrified content, that will then shape how others look to communicate. That’s a concerning, large-scale trend of note. Right?

It concerns me that our bookshops are being dominated by commercial fiction, and that literary culture is inevitably being diminished by such trends. That’s not to say there’s not a place for commercial works, for action thrillers, for romance, for historical fiction. This is not genre-based elitism, but in-depth literary fiction seeks to expose the heart of societal issues, and the varying capacity of language itself.

The best writing either raises something you weren’t aware of, confronts you with something you’d rather avoid or contextualizes a subject in a way you weren’t able to on your own. That then leads to new perspective, new discussion, a new way of looking at things that you hadn’t considered previously. Other forms of fiction are able to do this, it’s not exclusive to the literary genre, but the focus outside of lit fic is clearly more on quick-hit entertainment, a distraction from the daily grind. Again, that’s fine, but it often lacks the depth of purely literary work.

The question is, are readers less interested in literary fiction, or is the lack of exposure to literary fiction leading to a decline in popularity? And I don’t know the answer. No one does. But it’s a concern. It’s a concern that we may be losing something of our artistic culture to the swell of commercial trends.

I don’t know how this can be fixed, but it does feel like its something we can’t afford to lose. And definitely there are others who are working to address this. The Wheeler Centre in Melbourne is a good example, putting on a never-ending stream of literary and cultural events. I can also vouch for my own publishers at Random House and their passion for literature through my work – there’s never been a question of commercialisation or editing to fit my novels into a certain box. But the bottom line does have to come into play at some point, it has to be a consideration.

And as more and more commercial fiction gets sold over literature, are we going to reach a point where our best literary writers are being drowned out and forgotten within those shifting tides? Are we already missing out on a generation of new writers who are moulding their voices into genre-specific categories that don’t quite fit their artistic vision, but do match their commercial ambition?

What does that mean for our overall artistic health?

As I say, I don’t have the answers, but it is a concern. And I hope we don’t simply lose great work because “the dollars don’t make sense”.


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