Why Isn’t Literary Fiction Getting More Attention?

© The fantastic Tom Gauld
© Tom Gauld | www.tomgauld.com

Today’s guest post is from April Line, a freelance writer and writing teacher. Read her previous guest post for this site, Can Children Develop Adequately Without Books?, and visit her online at April Line Writing.

When I was in the home stretch of my liberal arts studies, something kind of shitty happened. I got pregnant. Being 25, a feminist, single, and centimeters from an MFA program in fiction writing at my choice between University of Pittsburgh, University of Cincinnati, or Purdue; abortion was the obvious answer, right?


There’s no point now in wondering whether it was the right choice, but I’ve got a pile of toil, an excellent six-year-old, and perspective to show for it.

What I don’t have is a terminal degree in the art of my choice, and give-or-take five years of reading and writing.

In April 2011, during my kid’s first year of public school, I was so relieved to reclaim a bit of breathing space that I quit my stupid retail sales job and I went freelance.

Copyblogger told me that I should tweet as a freelancer, so I did (they give great advice); and in May somebody tweeted asking, “Is literary fiction is the new poetry?”

The quotation is commonly attributed to Jonathan Franzen, but it’s a sentiment that’s been around for some time. I recall my mentor and undergraduate thesis advisor telling me that literary writers write for other literary writers.

Seeing it on Twitter gave it startling gravitas, plus my own burgeoning adulthood makes me more willing to see a doughnut’s hole, and it’s been niggling at my literature-loving soul.

And it seems that the fatalistic, academic impulse is going to be to let it just happen: to watch literary fiction’s audience become increasingly smaller, watch the people who write it become increasingly disenfranchised, watch their numbers diminish, even as the growing number MFA programs churn out writers and literature lovers, and deprive us—who would rather read Amy Hempel or John McNally or Joan Didion than Stephanie Meyer or Norah Roberts or John Grisham—of this delicious, delicious, reading.

That makes me sad.

One of the last bits of literary fiction I read before taking my too-long hiatus was Ron Currie Jr.’s God is Dead. That, friends, is a brilliant book. It’s loosely connected short stories set in post-apocalypse America. One of the first bits of literary fiction I read when I came back to reading for love, pleasure, and the experience was Ron Currie Jr.’s Everything Matters! which is also a brilliant book, and my new favorite. It replaced The Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke.

My point is that these books are lovely and entertaining. In Everything Matters!, there is cocaine and alcohol addiction, violence, celebrity, conspiracy, and science fiction. In The Arsonist’s Guide there’s multi generational marital unrest, alcoholism, violence, the mafia, fire. In both of these, there are very funny jokes.

And it seems to me that we’re reading more than ever as a culture. We read on the Internet, so many folks are blogging, e-readers and smart phones make books and language so accessible and ever present. I have a copy of The Pickwick Papers on my Android phone.

It seems sad and irresponsible to me that we should just let literary fiction fizzle into the academic ether.

This article at McSweeney’s references NEA studies that indicate that 1982–2003 accounted for the greatest decrease of young people reading literature. But young people are reading more as of 2009 than they did in the 30 years prior. So this new increase in young readers, combined with the decreased cost of publishing e-books, and marketing with social media, seems like an opportunity for literary fiction.

Genre authors are more likely to score five-figure advances (or more) and are almost certain to see royalties. Literary authors clamor after $5,000 advances if they don’t just give up and self pub—and if they see royalties, they’re spare.

Literary authors do book tours, signings, appear at academic conferences, speak on concerns of craft and the academic writing world. They have agents, but their agents don’t interface with their publishers to make sure the books are on end caps in Target or the equivalent.

Why the hell not?

Literary fiction gets marketed differently because there’s a different audience, right? And I can see that argument, sort of. Like if people who appreciate literature didn’t also like to buy inexpensive toilet paper. Or if enjoying 30 Rock and Planet Earth were mutually exclusive. Or if nobody who listens to Howard Stern ever listens to Fresh Air with Terry Gross.

The morale among literary authors is low. Because even though they know their books are great, the mainstream voice is saying, “But not great enough to be worthy of sales efforts!”  The playing field is leveling as reading becomes more digitized, and I’m not the only one who’s saying it. It’s time for literary authors to reclaim a segment of the market. And I want to help.

I loaded up my holiday gift list this year with titles from authors whose tweets I follow, from authors I loved seven years ago who’ve published new books, with writers the mainstream public doesn’t talk about.

Peter Damian Bellis lives 20 minutes away from me, and has written a book called The Conjure Man (available for free here) that was in the running for a nomination for the National Book Award. There are fewer than 5,000 copies out there. It’s not even in too many libraries. It’s a wonderful book that will totally enthrall you, and Bellis is touring blues festivals to publicize it.

Do the people in charge of decisions about marketing books have such a low estimation of the reading public that they won’t even give them the opportunity not to choose literary fiction?

I recognize that we’re probably a hundred long, laborious steps away from end caps in Target, or at least equal market saturation, but we must start walking.

Here’s a step: I’m starting a nonprofit. Billtown Blue Lit. We’ve got a blog. We’ve got a StartSomeGood Campaign, we’re doing a podcast called “Writers Talk.”  We want people to have access to good stuff to read, so we’re going to do good stuff in service of good books.

Maybe you’d like to join us.

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