Literary fiction, you might think, is in wonderful health. Book festivals, from Edinburgh and Wigtown in Scotland, to Hay-on-Wye in Wales, to Cheltenham and Bath in England, are flourishing. There is certainly no shortage of people eager to become authors of literary fiction: creative writing courses have proliferated. The British, you could argue, are more at home tucked up with a decent novel than with any other artform. Britain is, after all, the country of Austen, the Brontës and Eliot; of Ian McEwan, Zadie Smith and Hilary Mantel.
Look at the facts, though, and a more worrying picture emerges. It is well known that financing for the arts in Britain suffered a great blow after the global financial crisis: public funding for cultural organisations took a hit, the art market was severely knocked, and spending on theatre and concerts became impossible for many. A decade on there have been some signs of a recovery, albeit patchy and fragile. But this is not so for sales of literary fiction, which have not recovered from the recession. According to new researchcommissioned by Arts Council England, the problem affects literary fiction in particular. Genre fiction is doing better, dominating digital sales (the popularisation of the e-reader followed swiftly on the heels of the financial crisis; Amazon energetically promoted its Kindle for Christmas in 2010). The arrival of the smartphone, offering a game or the latest headlines as a tempting alternative to a paperback when one is stuck on a train or waiting for a bus, has had an impact. Meanwhile, pricing of literary fiction has remained flat, so the value of the overall market has shrunk.
This matters to writers and to readers. For the vast majority of writers, life has got tougher. Publishers’ advances have dwindled. Publishers themselves, now dominated by the giants Penguin Random House and Bertelsmann, are arguably less able to support promising but commercially unsuccessful writers over a long period – those, perhaps, like Hilary Mantel, who received critical acclaim but modest sales in her long career before the sensation of Wolf Hall. The Arts Council research suggests that 1,000 writers, at the very most, are able to support themselves on sales of literary fiction alone. Most subsidise their work by other means, many by teaching other aspirant writers. (The £8,000 or so that it costs to study for an MA in creative writing is more than many novelists could hope to earn on a published novel.) In many ways this is no different from the situation for artists working in other genres: while a small number of rich and famous directors, actors, composers and visual artists receive media attention, there is a vast number who struggle to remain afloat.
As for readers: one might ask why it matters. Perhaps one should be content to regard the literary novel as an artform of the 19th and 20th centuries, and accept the probability that Dickens would have been pitching to Netflix had he been around now. But this is glib: of course the novel remains important. It unleashes universal truths through attention to the particular and the specific; it can tackle difficult ideas sidelong, taking advantage of the distance offered by the act of invention; and above all, perhaps, it places the reader in other places, other times and other skins. (A 2013 study, for example, suggested that literary fiction has a beneficial effect on empathy – more so than genre fiction.)
If the pool of literary novelists narrows, excluding all except those with the means to support themselves, there is reason for anxiety: readers ought to be able to experience stories from all parts of society, not just from privileged corners of it. There are fears that the situation could become even worse: European distribution rights, now often held by UK publishers, may be fought for aggressively by US publishers in a post-Brexit world, the head of Bloomsbury recently warned. While that could mean more lucrative deals for the top-selling authors, less commercially successful writers could end up with a yet smaller portion of the pot.
Arts Council England is right to raise concerns about the future of literary fiction, and right to seek ways to help – through grants to individual writers, through promoting greater diversity among publishers, and through pushing for tax breaks for independent publishers (who have blossomed in recent years despite difficult conditions, but whose business models frequently remain fragile).
At this time of year, however, many readers can help in their own way: by picking up a great new novel, sinking into an armchair, and enjoying its manifold pleasures.