Monday, December 6, 2010

Genre Sales 2: Literary Fiction (Part 5 of 8)

Alack! Alas! Alas and alack, mes auteurs: despite the ubiquitous Franzenfreude of this past year, literary fiction (as a genre) still appears to be down numbers-wise (read: gross dollars) on an annual basis.

This probably doesn't come as a big surprise to most of you. John and Jane Q. Public, percentage-wise, don't read a lot of literary fiction; the lion's share of fiction seems to go to children's/YA, fantasy, and romance (chiefly of the paranormal variety), though thrillers and "general fiction" (mostly women's fiction) are also larger wedges of the pie.

I'm not sure I can give you a whole lot in terms of specific theories about why literary fiction is down; it's probably for the same reasons people never watch movies that won prestigious awards but have seen Air Bud like thirty times. Most people watch non-cerebral television shows, go to see non-cerebral movies, and read non-cerebral books. Even the cerebral among us have been known to watch Jersey Shore or read Twilight.

If you're writing literary fiction, you probably already realize it's more a labor of love than a serious commercial enterprise (though I wish it weren't, and that you could command a six-figure advance and sell tens of thousands of copies). Your advance will be lower than average, your sales figures will be lower than average, and unless you're both phenomenally talented and phenomenally lucky (a rare combination), you won't be the next Michael Chabon or Zadie Smith.

Literary fiction is also hard to write. Like, really hard, bros and she-bros. Everything hinges on your ability, and not so much on your killer (or not-so-killer) plot. I have seen successful self-help books and middle grade novels written by people who cannot, in my estimation, write their way out of a paper bag. I have yet to see a decent literary novel guilty of the same.

Therefore, in Ye Olde Starvinge Artiste's Bullet-O-Vision™:

· Literary fiction sales (gross dollars) appear to be down year-on-year. As Shakespeare once said: O snappe.

· While sad, this is probably not super surprising, and probably does not reflect a decreasing trend in American interest as regards fine literature.

· Americans have largely been uninterested in fine literature for about 240 years, although I suppose books were more important before there were radio shows and television and the Internet and Xboxes.

· Sorry, I seem to be channeling Kurt Vonnegut here.

· If you're curious about e-books, the 10% rule (see previous posts in this series) seems to hold firm, although it may be impacted by electronic sales of Franzen's Freedom.

Tomorrow: Science fiction!


  1. Wow, I picked a bad day to finish my literary YA. I should have stuck with the thriller instead.

  2. Not surprising, but still: Blegh.

    Sandra, I think writing a YA book, even if it's literary, makes things a bit brighter for you.

  3. I'm one of the sorry sods that does not typically read literary fiction, however, there are many in that genre that I have enjoyed once prodded and/or guilted into doing so.

    I think you hit the nail on the head regarding escapism and fantasy readers. I've been a fervent fantasy reader since I was a child for that very reason. I tend to read for enjoyment, and I sometimes do not wish to read literary fiction because, due to my job, the part of my brain that does critical thinking is fried by the end of the day. Depending on what I am reading, it actually raises my anxiety, which is the opposite of what I need.

    Sorry, literary authors! Without any sarcasm, I say you are amazing and have my kudos, regardless of my low-brow reading habits. :-) (I feel a bit guilty that I don't read your genre, in fact...)

  4. I think the number of comments corresponds to the nature of this post.We were the lucky generation to get the last-best education. Trained and raised to read literature, we still read Harold Robins behind our Ancient History books.

  5. It's a calling, not a popularity contest. I'm here for the work.

  6. Literary fiction sales (gross dollars) appear to be down year-on-year. As Shakespeare once said: O snappe.

    That is bar none the funniest thing you have ever said on this blog. Thank you for that, in the middle of the gloom, the laugh was very much appreciated.


  7. I think the trick is that while there's some darn good literary fiction, a lot of it always seems somehow *less* relevant than fantasy escapism, murder mysteries, and those sorts of things. It doesn't make much sense, really, because surely the average conspiracy theory or sword-and-sorcery tale is about as unlike my life as possible, yet it somehow feels as though it should be easier to relate to.

    Of course, that might be because I mostly read modern novels yet the only literary novels I've been forced to read by school were ones from the early- to mid- parts of these centuries. The issues and troubles of those years aren't always relevant to today's youth and, unfortunately, relevance to the audience has never been a school standard when judging works to inflict upon children.

  8. I think that there will always be a niche for literary fiction.

    After all, all those yahoos who contribute to all those obscure literary journals that every college and university seems to churn need something else to read in order to massage their inflated ego and that tarnished MFA.

  9. My high school English teacher said if you want to read "good" books, avoid the best-seller list. However, I've been reading what I consider "good books" and what's good for me is genre fiction.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  10. The powers that be claim they publish based on what the public wants. But do you think they are actually dictating the trends and making everyone think this is what they want? Anything that is too different can't get published; a book has to have a successful piece it can be compared to.

  11. I continue to be surprised by all the misconceptions floating around out there about literary fiction...that it's hard to read, it always requires constant and painful critical thinking, it's a chore, people only do it to look smart, etc. Whenever I see stuff like this, I can tell it's coming from people who don't read literary fiction. Which is fine! Read whatever you want. But if you picked up a range of literary fiction being published today, you might be surprised at what you find.

  12. Laura Maylene: Thanks for saying that! When people talk about how alienating literary fiction is, it doesn't remind me of my own experience at all. I read very little except literary fiction (from the classic myths to the latest experimental writing) and all of it is read for pleasure.

  13. I know I'm spliiting hairs here, but any thoughts on literary mid-grade?

  14. Literary fiction, by its nature, rummages beneath the surface of our life, something most people would prefer to avoid. The primary function of most novels is entertainment—a worthy enough goal—but today there is too much competition for our attention. And it is much easier to watch a dumb program on tv or surf the web for pornography than to read even the lightest novel. I suspect we’ll continue to see novels losing market share, even as authors compete to become sillier and more superficial.

    Meanwhile—writing literary fiction has never been a lark. You think Joyce had an easy time with Ulysses? Even in that happier era for authors, no publisher would touch that book. Sylvia Beach, at Shakespeare and Co., dug into her pocket to print it. Having a friend publish your book isn’t much different from paying a vanity press or hitting Amazon’s Create Space. And at least today, with this internet/digital revolution, authors—literary ones as well as the yapping hordes—can publish and offer for sale their own books, in both hard copy and digital format. You don’t even need Sylvia. We may still die poor, lost, and alone, since in this homogenized culture cream no longer rises to the top, but at least the work exists—and someone, years later, may actually drift through your words with a smile on his face…

  15. To a person who has a weirdo novel that straddles literary and commercial (hook, traditional story arc + literary writing style), is the take away:

    A) strip away the overly literary bits, so the thing can't be accused of pretension/affectation, and make it commercial;

    B) query it as commercial and keep it as it is;

    C) banish the idea of publishing/profiting, and get satisfaction from your writing in other ways; or,

    D) get drunk and wonder whether what you think of as a "literary writing style" is actually camouflage for an inability/stubborn refusal to write an engaging story in clear prose, decide the blame lies with your spouse for exposing you to an excess of contemporary poetry, get even drunker while you attempt to explain why it is your spouse's fault, wake up alone in a pool of your own vomit with a copy of the last Spenser novel and the Collected William Carlos Williams, finally ready to embrace option (A), (B), or (C)?

  16. I'm with Scott and Laura, stunned that people say literary fiction is too hard, not 'pleasurable' etc. While yes, there are some novels in this genre that might fit the bill, it is absolutely not my overall experience. I read about 95% literary fiction, mostly for pleasure. Every so often I try something else, for example Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and it was all I could do not to throw it in the bin out of sheer boredom.

    To those who say literary fiction is not entertaining: read Matthew Kneale's When We Were Romans; David Vann's Legend of a Suicide; David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas; Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach or Annie Proulx's short stories or other work.

    And I do think there are a lot of writers who are extremely literary and do well because they manage to straddle genres (early John le Carré for example).

    For me, I never set out to write 'literary fiction' and one or two of my short stories might not be labelled as such, but ultimately I try to write a good story with emotional punch. That the writing has come out, for the most part, as 'literary' is a surprise.