Sunday, 17 December 2017

Standing Up For Readers

Over the last couple of days I've read two articles bemoaning the decline in literary fiction and offering reasons behind the trend. The first was The Guardian newspaper's coverage of an Arts Council report on declining sales of literary fiction and which I'll touch on at the end of this post. The other was Larissa Pham writing in The Village Voice that readers are failing to read 'properly' to judge by the reaction to a New Yorker short story "Cat Person" that went viral and prompted a lot of response. How very dare she claim that readers don't know how to read properly.

Why do readers read books for pleasure? Why do they devote a not inconsiderable chunk of their leisure time to a book? If you'll forgive me, from this point on I'm going to elide the pleasure/leisure reading motive as 'pleisure'. A reader can derive pleasure from a book in many different ways, so much so there is no typical reader. Myself I enjoy language, metaphor, voice (character and/or authorial) and innovative narrative structures in novels. I'm less bothered by story or endings (twisty or otherwise). Nothing gives me more pleasure than being sent scurrying to a dictionary to look up a new word I've come across in a book. Now I know plenty of readers who object to this as it drags them out of the story (I know this because my own writing has prompted this entirely legitimate response). Different strokes etc. The spectrum of readers' pleasure is very wide indeed.

"Cat Person" went viral, but does that mean every single reader and sharer committed their thoughts publicly on social media? Of course not, so why does Pham use the comment evidence to represent all readers? Her claim is that many of the commentators took the story as non-fiction and responded accordingly. So what, they still derived pleasure from the read, enough to continue the conversation after finishing it by commenting on line. She blames literary criticism for failing to educate readers to be able to read texts properly, so it's no wonder the readers missed the point. Again, how very dare she! There may well be a crisis in literary criticism, but is there only one way to read a story and that is through a literary criticism lens? Of course not, readers derive pleisure in many different ways as we have already established. I would put it to you that if a litfic novel is so up itself that it can only possibly be read in one single way, it has failed the reader, not the other way around.

Furthermore, who is to say what is and what isn't fiction? Plenty of litfic books are consciously written to give the impression they are fact: the very excellent "House Of Leaves" for one. Historical Fiction actively blurs the boundaries, since it is avowedly fiction that must appear authentic to the historical age in which it is set. And even memoir, which is filed under non-fiction, actually veers into fiction through the mere act of organising a life into a narrative, which means foreshortening, omission and the like. The very term 'creative non-fiction' is a nod in the direction of this admission.

Readers are entitled to read just what books they want in whatever way they choose. Writers are (or at least should be) free to write whatever book they choose. The trick is to make the two dovetail. If literary fiction is failing to do so (as falling sales might suggest), then the fault is that of the writer not the reader. Fiction writing is an act of the imagination. If it fails to engage the imagination of readers, then the fault does not lie in the readers' imaginations, but that the writer has failed to reach them. Good writing draws the reader into the author's imagination, if it doesn't happen, again the failure is with the writing.

I have no idea if the world is dumbing down or not, but one segment you would proffer as immune is those who read for pleisure. Reading and literacy are two fundamentals of intelligence. So even if the world is dumbing down, there is no evidence that readers are, whatever Pham alleges. And as to The Guardian's reporting of reduced litfic sales, this overlooks a different way of reading that is not included in sales figures. Readers as consumers have become cute, there is plenty of free literary content available for them to read. I myself publish my flash fiction online for free and they are well read. But that will not register as sales, yet it is still literary fiction being read. The growth of book bloggers and booktubers wanting to share their love of books would suggest both that fiction is in a very strong place (admittedly many review genres other than litfic), but also that the literary criticism so lambasted by Pham has just become more democratic. That has to be a good thing, since so much of academic literary criticism is inaccessible (both physically and in terms of legibility), what is so wrong about having a more legible literary criticism? I myself offer a BookTube review site for litfic which I would peg below the academic level but hopefully all the more accessible accordingly. A final hopeful indicator of literature's future health is the expansion (explosion?) in Young Adult fiction which augurs that there will be new generations of readers brought up on this remarkably successful genre. Pham presumably would offer that none of them will graduate on to litifc, but remain reading YA. Well if they do, all well and good. Then you need to ask the question why haven't litfic authors manage to hook them on to their adult wares?

It seems to me this all part of the snobbery and elitism around literature that keeps people at arms length from it. Look at the snobbery aimed at graphic novels or fan fiction. Yet in a way litfic also is a form of fanfic. The works of Jasper Fforde with its literary games and references is to my mind absolutely a literary version of fanfic; Fforde's employing characters and books of those who came before him in a celebratory way. Canongate ran a series of novels by literary authors such as Jeanette Winterson and Michel Faber, reinterpreting classical myths for the modern age. Not what you might classify as fan fiction, yet predicated upon a love and respect of the original literary myth from each of these authors.

Lastly on to the Guardian article. Several reasons are offered for declining litfic sales. The competing pull of other digital entertainments is one cited. But if a novel is not able to compete with reality TV, meme videos, Angry Birds or whatever, then I would posit that it's because the novel is not entertaining enough. Reading as a pleisure activity is a form of entertainment, probably the least passive of those cited above. People living on their phones does not inevitably signal the death knell (ringtone?) to novels, but novelists do have to respond to its attraction and offer an enticing alternative. As that article signs off quoting Will Self, the by-the-numbers rote writing of MFAs (creative writing courses) is a very real reason underlying why litfic is failing to connect with readers. But MFA's are far more relevant to the US than UK writers, while the article also points to the growth of independent publishers as feeding the appetite for engaging lific where perhaps the large publishing houses are failing. But of course, that is not reflected in a significant sales uplift since the typical first print run of an independent is 500-1000 copies. And hypocritical of me as this is, I would suggest the Guardian article entirely missed the point of the Arts Council report, by focussing on the virtual impossibility of a litfic author making a full-time living from their fiction. For a start, this has been the case for some considerable time predating the digital publishing revolution, with many authors having to supplement their income from other means: Kafka worked in insurance; Larkin was a university librarian, several are journalists and literary critics. But I say the article missed the point, since Will Self has so much more to say about the current state of literary fiction than just MFAs. His analysis goes into the the way we read on the printed page compared to a digital screen, how language is organised and arranged digitally; "why are people going to continue writing {novels} for a medium that people no longer read it on?"

I haven't read the Arts Council report which The Guardian was reporting on. As per usual the response to a supposedly endangered art form is to suggest it needs some sort of (financial) support. Not having read the report, I'm curious how they propose to do this. Given how many books are published each year and how many authors there are, what is going to be the selection process for supporting individual authors? To plough through the inevitable welter of submissions for funding would require the Arts Council to employ an internal staff of the order that Facebook and YouTube are finally getting round to do to weed out extremist content on their sites. it just isn't practicable and in the way of these things, will likely tend to settle for elitism in their final choices of lucky recipients, since their labyrinthine application system will weed out all but the most savvy of bidders.

In a digital age you cannot just measure people consuming litfic just by sales. If there is indeed a crisis in litfic, perhaps gainsaid by book bloggers and independent publishing house growth, then the fault is with the authors and those who produce their work for them in the form of publishers and editors. The fault is not with the readers.


My new literary fiction novel "Three Dreams In the Key Of G" will be published by independent publishers Dead Ink Books early in 2018


Katherine Hajer said...

The "people thought it was real" comment is pretty rich of Pham, given that 1) it's realistic fiction and 2) it's been so often passed along with the comment "this could have been me at that age".

If lut fic is going to survive, it's going to have to get off its high horse and stop assuming it's just automatically better than anything else, just because "literary" is right in the name.

Sulci Collective said...

The fiction Vs Realism debate is one that perennially fascinates me. Pham however has reduced it to soundbites, if that's the right term for online media