Self-fulfilling prophecy: is fiction really dead or are publishers killing it?

The U.S. publishing industry pumps out a new work of fiction every 30 minutes — an unprecedented pace — but this summer a National Endowment for the Arts study revealed* that Americans, particularly teenagers and college students, are far less likely to read literature than they were twenty years ago. Blame for disinterest in literary reading is often placed at Hollywood’s doorstep. Runner-up targets are television, the Internet, and video games.

No doubt the rise of these media has dampened the appetite for literary fiction, but it would be a mistake to discount the influence of publishers themselves. Today the lion’s share of publishers’ promotion dollars are plunked down in support of books by the likes of Baywatch-star-cum-memoirist Pamela Anderson and Anna Wintour protege and novelist Plum Sykes (whose Bergdorf Blondes is a blonde-ful, high society tale that motivated one reviewer to announce that its publication should “inspire readers everywhere to rise up and rip one another limbless.” Sykes, poor dear, fancies herself a serious writer, bristles at comparisons to Helen Fielding, and, when asked in May if she had read The Great Gatsby, answered in the affirmative, noting she also knew “the other works by Truman Capote.”)

Add to this U.S. newpapers’ increased dedication of review space to political and other nonfiction offerings at the expense of novels — even periodicals like the New York Review of Books have turned their attention from fiction — and it’s safe to say that most novels are left to founder among the thousands of titles published each year. As writer A.L. Kennedy has noted, in both the States and the U.K. novels are devalued in favor of celebrity biographies and “creative nonfiction” that offers the voyeuristic pleasure of autobiography but may not technically be true.

British publishing columnist Robert McCrum recently argued that the promotion of terrible books is immaterial in the long run. Twenty or thirty years on, McCrum said, the standout literary works of our time will be remembered and forgettable ones like Pamela Anderson’s Star will have fizzled completely.

McCrum’s historical perspective is sensible, his argument not without merit. For, surely, no one will care to read about Ms. Anderson’s tatas once they’ve fallen to her ankles.

Yet even if we accept that the worst books will not last, there is no evidence that the converse is true. No one can guarantee that the very best literary novels will rise to the top of the historical consciousness when so little effort is made to publish and promote good fiction and so few people are reading it.

New York Times Book Review critic Laura Miller has bemoaned the tide of publishers’ galleys flooding her home. Reading her reviews, which rarely discuss any but the most highly-promoted novels, one has the sense that she has fallen under the spell of the major publishers’ publicity efforts. In the late 90’s, at Salon.com, Miller was more adventurous, but these days she’ll rarely review a more obscure title offered by the major publishers, much less one put out by a smaller press.

Miller is not alone. The book review sections of most major U.S. papers rely on the large houses (their primary advertisers) to direct their attention to the very best books. This is akin to asking your local used car dealer which vehicle in the lot is the best — why, the most expensive one, of course!

In their endless search for the next J.K. Rowling or David Sedaris (who happens to be a good writer), publishers focus less and less on ensuring or evaluating the actual quality of books but are happy to throw money behind whatever they believe to be The Next Big Thing. A recent article in Columbia Journalism Review chronicled the many obstacles faced by journalist and debut author Stacy Sullivan in publishing and promoting her nonfiction book. Sullivan’s story mirrors those I’ve heard even from seasoned and well-regarded novelists. While due to her failure to meet deadlines Sullivan bears some responsibility for the dismal fate of her book, the moral of her story holds true for most writers: unless your publisher sees your book as bestseller material, you’re on your own.

Only the rarest of editors edit. Most writers have to pay a freelancer for that. The art department doesn’t care whether the exploding grenades on the proposed cover undermine the themes of your book. And your publicist may not spend more than 10 minutes a week on you, especially not if he or she is also responsible for promoting books written by star authors like, say, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Plum Sykes, or even, as in Sullivan’s case, Newt Gingrich.

According to several literary agents of my acquaintance, publishers have placed significant constraints on editors’ abilities to commit to books they like. Marketing departments now wield a mighty influence over purchasing decisions. In fact, in conjunction with publicists, marketing wonks are primarily responsible for determining what books are likely to be reviewed in newspapers. They decide which books should appear on front tables at major booksellers and pay for placement there.

Bear in mind that these are the same gurus who thought they could mirror the success of “chick lit” with books geared toward young, urban men. A name — “lad lit” — was invented for the genre before it tanked.

In this marketing-dominated world of publishing, there is little likelihood that any but the most well-funded novels will receive significant notice in the press or otherwise come to the attention of readers already weary of much-advertised works of crap masquerading as literature.

Since at least 2001, debate over the so-called “death of the novel” has raged in Britain. The contagion has spread to the U.S., where fiction increasingly is neglected even as heiress advice books by Paris Hilton have massive marketing budgets behind them.

If the novel really is dying, blame publishers, not readers. But if, as the proliferation of book-related weblogs suggests, interest in the novel remains strong and the cultural debate over fiction lively, we can only hope that publishers will smarten up and give readers what they want: more good books.

 
*For a critique of the NEA study, see Paul Collins’ persuasive essay in the Village Voice.


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