Where To Now For Literary Fiction

The La Trobe University essay in the latest issue of Australian Book Review is titled "The Tyranny of the Literal" by James Ley. It sets out to examine the current state of literary fiction, and Australian literary fiction in particular. Ley does this by looking at the subject from on high, dipping into various works (Coetzee, Castro, and Gemmell) to illuminate his theme, rather than looking at a swathe of works and getting lost in the detail. It's a pretty good essay overall, though I have to admit I had to re-read some passages a few times to get to the heart of what he was talking about. And even then I may well have missed the point.

After some extensive introductory comments Ley states his basic problem: "The latest in a rolling series of crises that seem permanently to afflict Australian literature is a crisis of declining readership. Literary fiction is losing market share to memoirs and genre fiction." Ley doesn't get stuck into either genre fiction or memoirs the same way that Shirley Hazzard implied after Stephen King was awarded a National Book Award in 2003. He concentrates on the literary fiction scene and admits that "... Australian literature is currently more diverse and robust than it is sometimes given credit for; good novels are being published, even if they are not always the most visible."

I think the lack of visibility here is the greatest problem. This is not something that had particularly come to mind before I started this weblog. But in the past few months I have come to the conclusion that a number of literate Australian novels are getting rather short shrift from the mainstream media in this country.

So what's new, you ask. Not a lot, I admit. The decline of literary fiction, as a proportion of books read, can probably be traced back to the release of the first Penguin paperbacks so the problem has been with us for some time. It's just that I think we might be on the cusp of something new in the way literary fiction is promoted.

The big news in the promotion of literature during the 1990s was probably the advent of Oprah Winfrey and her Book Club. Love her or loathe her she brought to the public's attention a number of modern fiction works, and it has been said that having her sticker attached practically guaranteed extra sales of hundreds of thousands of copies in the US. In Australia a similar flow-on effect occurred. I don't have specific numbers but the general feeling was that an Oprah sticker entitled the book to a prominent display spot at the front of a bookstore, with its subsequent higher recognition value and hence higher sales. If you're looking for something to read then word-of-mouth from a friend is always the best recommendation, and as Oprah was considered a "friend" by many thousands, the word-of-mouth effect snowballed. In Australia "The Women's Weekly" attempted something similar, but without the added celebrity of Oprah, and the heightened publicity glare of television I doubt it had a similar effect. Even the attempt showed that publishers and booksellers thought it might sell some more copies.

Now Oprah's gone off modern fiction - maybe Jonathan Franzen was blame, and maybe not - and only appears to recommend self-help books and "classic literature". So there's a big gap in the promotion of literary fiction.

Literary weblogs are a bigger event in the US than they are here. (One of the reasons why I started Matilda was that I couldn't find Australian based weblogs that covered the same sort of territory as Blog of a Bookslut, Beatrice, and Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind (amongst many others), but from an Australian perspective. I don't believe I have reached the standard of any of these, by the way, I'm just marking my territory.)

Publishers, readers, booksellers and all forms of print media are starting to notice the effect these litblogs are having on sales and reading in general. And the litbloggers in the US are also aware of the promotional potential they now possess. As a consequence, at the instigation of Mark Sarvas and his weblog The Elegant Variation, about 20 litbloggers from across the US have banded together to form The LitBlog Co-Op. As Sarah Weinman puts it, the Co-Op is "a chance to showcase excellent writing that you might not otherwise be aware of. A chance to participate with some of my friends and colleagues in highlighting gems that should have the spotlight kept on them for far longer than the industry often allows. And a chance to talk books in as enlightened, informed, and enthusiastic a way possible." And Ron Hogan strengthens the aims of the enterprise: "In some ways the litblog is still a reactive genre -- we get many of our stories by noticing what's in the news, and declaiming whether we're for it or against it -- but one of our more significant strengths lies in our ability to react to what is missing from the usual media coverage of literature and the publishing industry."

The aim of the Co-Op is to concentrate attention on four books a year - books that might well not get the reviews and coverage they would ordinarily deserve. So maybe we are looking at something new here.

The first selection in the "Read This!" campaign will be announced in early May. Five of the participants have been nominated to suggest one title each, from which one novel will be chosen. In the meantime others in the Co-Op are touting books they might have suggested if they had been one of the five. I've already picked up Sarah Weinman's suggestion of Taming the Beast by Emily Maguire, the debut novel by a young Australian author. Yes, even fine, confronting Australian fiction such as this might be featured. I'd suggest you check this weblog quite often.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on April 27, 2005 3:31 PM.

Collins Booksellers Finishes Up was the previous entry in this blog.

Collins Booksellers Fallout is the next entry in this blog.

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