Literary Fiction in Crisis was the headline lede for a series of articles in The Guardian last month. Long known as a balanced and inclusive arts publication (/sarcasm) they sought to highlight a serious problem and a solution for literary fiction.

In case you haven’t heard, people aren’t reading literary fiction. Book sales are dropping. I covered this in my post on Australian Fiction, and US Fiction, and the Guardian article covered the UK figures in its first piece in the series.

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Let’s try not to think too hard about sales being in value terms and not volume. I mean, ebooks aren’t usually priced cheaper or anything and would hardly contribute to this revenue figure whilst being more profitable. Clearly, we need to get onto blaming the real culprits. Stupid kids these days are playing Tweeters and Facepage instead of buying books.

One reason suggested by the report for the decline in literary fiction sales is the recession, happening at the same time as the rise of cheap and easy entertainment. “In comparison with our smartphones, literary fiction is often ‘difficult’ and expensive: it isn’t free, and it requires more concentration than Facebook or Candy Crush,” the report’s authors write.

Won’t someone thinking of the starving artists!!

The researchers looked at the 10,000 bestselling fiction titles over the last five years and found: “Outside of the top 1,000 authors (at most), printed book sales alone simply cannot provide a decent income. While this has long been suspected, the data shows unambiguously that it is the case. … What’s more, this is a generous assessment. After the retailer, distributor, publisher and agent have taken their cut, there won’t be a lot of money left from 3,000 sales of the 1,000th bestselling title. That we are returning to a position where only the best-off writers can support themselves should be a source of deep concern.”

OMG, you’re telling me that artists have to have day jobs?* Oh the humanity! Surely this must be a new thing… Unless it has literally always been a thing. If only there was a graphic somewhere that could highlight the proportion of authors who make a living writing…

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Source: A 3.5 year old Guardian article…

The second article covers some of the same ground before highlighting a couple of important points.

This continuity imperative has long been built into the foundations of commercial publishers, who expect many of their most successful writers to cough up a book a year. And as publishing has become more centralised, with much of its power now concentrated in three giant conglomerates, it has become more ruthless.

The brutal truth is that through the 1980s and 90s it was possible for the literary novelist to make a living on advances that didn’t “earn out”. They were supported by an old-fashioned value system that sanctioned the write-off of losses for the kudos of association with an “important” writer and a belief that literary value could be offset against the profits of more pragmatic publishing.

These points are ones which are not made often enough. In an industry that runs on the work of part-timers (88.5%), the proceeds to these employees are decreasing, the time commitments are increasing, and the investment in their careers is decreasing. Where are the three articles criticising this problem?

Of course, we need to steer the ship away from that iceberg of issues. The second article instead makes the argument that the UK Arts Council should fund more authors (and let’s assume the implication is that other governments around the world should do the same).

Unlike the performing arts, publishing has always been a largely commercial sector that has had to square its own circles. This is reflected in the fact that it gets only 7% of the funding cake handed out by the Arts Council, compared with 23% to theatre and 11% to dance.

Personally, I want to see Arts Council funding to be decided in a Thunderdome. It would be great to see starving artists facing off against one another for grants. The fit and agile dancers doing battle against the people who spend all day sitting and typing. They could stream it on Pay Per View and raise some extra arts funds.

There will be those who argue that this just shows that literary fiction is a hangover from the past, and the poor dears should knuckle down and resign themselves to writing what people actually want to read. But few would dare to make the same argument about experimental theatre or dance.

Yes, I’d argue this. And I would dare to make the same argument for theatre and dance. Thun-der-dome, Thun-dur-dome, Thun-der-dome!

The third article in this series makes just this argument – just to be clear, for writing what people want to read, not fighting in the Thunderdome. It doesn’t mince words and goes straight for the jugular.

Following the announcement from Arts Council England that sales of literary fiction are plummeting, it is suggested that arts subsidies be deployed to help writers survive. I have another idea. They should write better books.

This article goes on to imply that literary authors could put some effort into writing stuff people want to read, mainly via utilising compelling plots, which the author feels is a major flaw in literary works. I think he misses an important point. Authors can write whatever they want. But I do agree that authors can’t expect to earn a living from this unpopular writing, nor have people like it, nor have it be accepted as appropriate (e.g. racism). Pleasing a small club of literary snobs with worthy books doesn’t entitle authors to a full-time career.

Of course, nobody is proposing supporting genre authors. They aren’t writing important fiction and are thus not real authors. They deserve to starve! This is the main issue I have with the argument to fund literary fiction. Somehow we’ve glossed over all the authors who aren’t making a living writing genre, as though they have nothing to contribute to society, and are thus unworthy of arts funding. Admittedly, a very good study, mentioned in the second article, does show there are clear empathy differences between readers of genre and literary novels** – although why is still a question to be answered. So there is an argument to be made for literature support.

As I see it, there are a few paths we could tread. The reading industry could acknowledge that most authors are part-timers and do more to support this reality while they balance a day job with their art. Or we can acknowledge that arts are an important aspect of our culture and support ALL artists with grants – not just the “important” literary ones. This latter option could be easily and justifiably funded by taking government funding out of popular high-level sports – i.e. no more free stadiums for you football! Let’s just hope that sports don’t go up against arts in the Thunderdome.

*Side note: we could probably even refer to the artistic projects as the Side Hustle. This piece by Zen Pencils is quite good and captures the idea behind the author dream.

**Worth reading this paper, which I’ve linked directly. I expected this to be a small sample, poorly analysed, poorly reasoned, paper that was written to elevate snobbery with pseudoscience. It was actually a very solid study. Although, it is worth noting that literary merit was on a spectrum, so literary could be found in many titles. This included Raymond Chandler in the top third of literary titles, which surprised me (last spot was James Patterson, which should surprise no one).

Edit: A recent article touched on a point about art vs sport and the taxation of people in those fields in Australia. Interesting what we promote as important.

Edit: A Twitter thread about the origins of what we call literature versus genre caught my eye. The basic summary is that after the industrial revolution you had class divides between readers. Workers got to read one type of magazine, whilst richer managers (but not the capitalists) got a fancier magazine. The stories that were published in the fancier magazines became literary, whilst the rest was genre. So when I say that literature is based on snobbery, it is quite literally the snobbery of class divides in “Western culture”.

See also: Author Earnings

18 thoughts on “Literary Fiction in Crisis

  1. Do you have the avg income for author in australia? 9k. You read it right. Two years ago it was 11k. 2015 it was 13k. The ones who do earn enough to live on (I’ll call that earning above the min wage, shall I?) write in genre, or won a big thing (Miles Franklin or similar) in the last year or two.
    Bugger literary – we’d all like to earn a living.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Screw the average income. Median income of $2,800 shows how skewed that average figure is.

      This quote from the Throsby report on authors in Australia: “Most authors rely on other paid work and their partner’s income to make ends meet.” “According to the 2015 Macquarie University survey, nearly half of all authors supplement their work with a job unrelated to their writing, and 37.3% are supported by their partner’s income. Authors and illustrators often rely on money from literary prizes and grants to buy time away from their “day-jobs” to produce creative work.”

      Click to access 3_Authors_Income.pdf

      Literary authors in particular have skewed returns. They are the ones with the prizes to win. They also tend to supplement writing with teaching writing. I’ve also noticed a lot of literary authors seem to be doing PhD programs, even quite well established authors like Nick Earls and Tara Moss.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Personally, I want to see Arts Council funding to be decided in a Thunderdome. It would be great to see starving artists facing off against one another for grants. The fit and agile dancers doing battle against the people who spend all day sitting and typing. They could stream it on Pay Per View and raise some extra arts funds.”

    Heck, I’D pay to watch that. I’d even take time off from reading to watch that. I’d blog about that! Throw in a little blood, maybe a broken bone or three and I’d be a total literary junkie! 😉

    I’ve never understood the thinking that “authors” automatically have the right to make a living off of what they do. If they do, great for them. I’ll support the ones I like, but I’m strictly a genre reader, so screw the literary ones. I hope they choke to death on their own manuscripts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is a self-entitled air to artists, particularly the snobbishly important ones. They seem to think that their art is the most important thing and should be given money because they are special.

      Actually, let me rephrase: the more vocal segments of the industry think they are special and should be funded by the commoners. They are passionate about what they do, but wrongly assume that means everyone else should have the same passion.

      I used the sport comparison at the end for good reason. Sport is passionately followed, but as I argued in the linked post, it is nowhere near as popular as we think. Sports are given public (and private) money that is not in line with their need and actual popularity, and would probably be better spent elsewhere (especially given how lucrative/profitable big name sports are).

      Now, this same argument applies to arts. Publishing must be profitable, or at least regarded as important enough to the big companies who own all the publishing houses. So maybe my argument should be that publishers can cough up the cash? Although, the argument differs in that I’m talking about funding artists vs funding an industry (rather than the sports players).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Heck, I fund Michael Sullivan with the kickstarters for his Riyria books. But he earned that with the first 6 being cheaply self-pubbed. I read his stuff and just wanted more. So now I pay for it in hardcover.
        Sometimes I feel like a druggie. Yo man, you got any of that good hardcover stuff?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think direct patronage is a great idea…. for established authors with a decent fan base. Amanda Palmer showed that with her Art of Asking. You don’t need a huge fan base nor for them to each give you a lot of money, especially if you don’t want a luxurious lifestyle, just the freedom to write/create.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The assumptions in this article are not persuasive, for it is in want of argumentation and evidence. Forgive me for my long comments, but after having read some of the articles on this blog, I have some thoughts that I think may be of interest.

    Firstly, you cannot assume cultural artefacts align so strictly into different social classes. Books and the different styles in which they are composed do not continuously abide by strict class categories, for the audiences change with time and the author does not remain the property of one group of people with the same ideologies. The Japanese poet Basho, who wrote haiku, was deified by the Japanese imperial elite, but there have been people of the lower classes who love his work. Taste and value will have variation between social classes, but texts can belong to multiple communities. It is not as simple as the populist “us versus the elites”, a conception that is based upon tribalist politics, feelings and prejudices, rather than data. And is it not a form of populism to select an arbitrary sample of the people and say, “I speak for these people; these are the people, and I know what they want; none of them enjoys the things I found boring”. Although I would never argue that the books I enjoy are going to be loved by everyone else, I never assume that if I found something boring that everyone else would too.

    Although many classic authors of the 20th century such as Steinbeck, Nabokov, Faulkner and Hemingway sold millions of copies amongst ordinary people, there are canonical authors who had much smaller audiences. Percy Shelley (17922, 1822) was a poet of the Romantic era, but his work has never been widely read by the masses in the way Dickens and Tolstoy have been and still are. You may therefore question his importance and ask, “what value is to be found in teaching the work of Shelley?” It is a good question. Percy Shelley influenced Bertrand Russell, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy and hundreds of writers. Tolstoy was an influence upon Martin Luther King Jr. That is why we teach Shelley, because he is part of a historical genealogy of influence. Anti-reverence is not the same thing as pretending literary history did not exist.

    Many canonical authors were often born in the elite class. Ovid was an elite Roman gentleman who received a great privilege to compose what he desired, especially because of his having been born male. But do not think it my aim to suggest that you are not educated in these matters of literary history. For you, Tyson, have read Ovid in Latin; I saw that you had read Ovid’s work on GoodReads, and it was not just any common edition of Ovid – it was the Loeb Classical Library Edition from Harvard, an edition published in Latin with an English interlinear. Since it is the experts who read the Loeb editions, and since it is unlikely that you would have payed $200 for all fifteen volumes of Ovid in the Latin edition instead of a cheaper Penguin one, I assume that you know Latin and that you are educated in literary history, but I find it bizarre that a person who has mastered Latin to the level of proficiency to read Ovidius in the original would hold the curious and rather commercial ideology that all books must only be “entertainment”, and accuses books he has not really read as boring. Surely, the technical mastery and historical context necessary to read Ovidius has taught you that books mean different things in different cultures and that books can create enjoyment and nostalgia in many different ways, even if they are not considered entertaining by the Westerners who have been socialised into the products under capitalism. Ovid sought to compose not entertainment; he sought immortality. “ore legar populi, perque omnia saecula fama, siquid habent veri vatum praesagia, vivam.”

    Ovidius does not seek the common or the easy in his grammatical intricacy; his poetic line is not in the style of common speech, which was the purpose St Jerome wrote for; a line of Ovidius is like that found in the most difficult equations of geometry. The literature was not for entertainment alone, especially with its pythagorean speeches that crown Book XV; Ovid’s Metamorphoses was built to make us to think. We therefore do not judge books from the past by the standards of commercialism. We alter our criteria and assumptions and we must be like archaeologists when exploring literature from another world that may demand from us more than any other art. Do we read ancient Persian literature according to the assumptions about books installed in our brains by reading too many spy novels?

    Elsewhere in your website you give the impression that classics are only of interest to conservatives, and that is false. Many leftwing students at university such as myself, and classicists such as Mary Beard and Donna Zuckerberg etc., are not reverential towards the past; indeed, we believe that the history of classics is to be studied critically; but this does not mean there is a want of fascination with or passion for the works. That a conservative might relentlessly seek to prove the eminence of Rembrandt does not mean that Rembrandt belongs only to conservatives. Such generalisations about audiences should never be formed from a few particulars. And there is nothing conservative about Ulysses, despite its having been written by a heterosexual Irishman; in the book Mr. Bloom develops a vulva and gets fisted by a man dressed as a woman in a brothel. “He bares his arm and plunges it elbow-deep in Bloom’s vulva. ‘Theres fine depth for you! What, boys? That gave you a hardon?’” (Page 440). The irony is that conservatives might not have read what they may defend.

    And let’s turn to another irony, this time on your side. Is not pop culture produced by the capitalists of the upper classes? The great Marxist Adorno wrote about the Culture Industry under capitalism and the dangers of mass conformity and deception. Certain postmodern theories on pop culture are even bleaker. It does not make any sense to me to say that it is “snobbishness” to criticise the products that the capitalists promote, no matter how many copies the products sell in the market. Hollywood, the publishing industry, the music industry, especially with all its whiny pop stars manufactured on the production lines, are under the power and marketing methods of hundreds of Harvey Weinsteins, a plutocracy that decides what is to be commodified according to its ideologies. Any complaint against ancient Roman literature for its having been preserved by elite scholars can also be put forth against the system of commodity fetishism in capitalist societies. Bertrand Russell in his essay about Idleness argued less labour time was important, “Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid.” And he also wrote that in a world where people have more time, “Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers”. You appropriated a quote from Bertrand Russell with little context concerning his actual views on the matter. Why should I give respect to generic commodities that the capitalists market for entertainment? I therefore recommend that we be just as critical of the commodities that are marketed as entertainment by the capitalists as we have been of the idea that Greek philosophy was canonised according to aesthetic meritocracy.

    The more advanced and intellectual certain books become, the more historical context and knowledge is required for their appreciation. One must know something about the history of slavery and the American Civil War to appreciate Toni Morrison, for the work can be too obscure and demanding without a greater historical knowledge. Children will find it difficult, but why should teenagers be denied such works? Is not the education system the one place where children have the opportunity to have exposure to those things that are not given to them by the commercial media, the algorithms online, and the tentacles of the culture industry that penetrate all?

    Classic authors also have an influence outside their literary tradition. Science fiction authors such as Isaac Asimov were influenced by Milton’s Paradise Lost, a cosmological epic from the Renaissance; it contains great imagery, colourful verses, epic battles in outer space one of the greatest depictions of Satan in literature. Bertrand Russell, Charles Darwin and many other major figures enjoyed it. A person on Twitter called Anthony Oliveira @meakoopa teaches Paradise Lost online and he has a huge following. He also writes about sci fi, LGBT matters, and comic books. High culture can coexist with pop culture.


    1. Thanks for the long reply.

      I’m not actually sure you disagree with me, but you seem to think you do. Nothing makes this more obvious than your concluding remark being essentially the same as mine (I’ve worded it as ALL artists should get grants, you’ve worded it as high and pop culture can coexist).

      Much of your response appears to have misunderstood my thesis while essentially agreeing with my overall point. I don’t know if this was me not being clear enough, or if you have taken my words to mean something they weren’t intended to. E.g. you wrote that texts can belong to multiple communities…. which is what I showed with my reference to the reading statistics (the first three links are to my posts on this and have discussed at length in other “worthy” posts).

      A couple of corrections:
      You’ve misinterpreted or taken several points I’ve made here and elsewhere in bad faith. I never said class categories are the only nor immutable distinguisher of literary vs genre, that would be clear from both my use of “origins” and the reference cited (which expands further). Another is that I obviously don’t read Latin and clicked on the wrong edition on Goodreads – but I have read some Ovid as he had some great writing on agriculture. Another is the assumption I’m taking Russell out of context after I referred to him as my favourite thinker and have reviewed many of his works, including In Praise of Idleness. I didn’t say that the classics are only of interest to conservatives, I either said directly or was seeking to imply that traditionalism promotes classics (worthy texts) over any/all others – points that are quite different.

      These points, and others, feel less like you’re starting a friendly discussion, and more like you’re trying to be nasty and condescending. While I do appreciate your comment, as I think we’re roughly on the same page and have ideas to exchange here, I’d appreciate less bad faith discourse.


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