Literary fiction and the current marketplace

Literary agent Betsy Learner posted on the business of selling novels. I’d shorten this quote if I could, but what Lerner writes is too compelling for paraphrase or a one-sentence excerpt:

A lot of painful conversations lately about literary fiction and its demise.

Was it ever any different?

When I was an assistant at Simon and Schuster 25 years ago, there was exactly one literary fiction editor. And his position was rumored to be precarious as a result of focusing exclusively on the literary stuff. (In fact, he was let go a year later.) Of course, this was especially true at a house like S&S where monster political and celebrity books ruled. I can still recall an anxious conversation between a senior editor and a publicist because they couldn’t remember if Jackie Collins preferred white roses or red.

I understood at that tender age that to focus entirely on fiction was to jeopardize my hope of becoming an editor.

This implies that nonfiction is the more secure field, which jives with what I’ve seen on many literary agents’ websites and blogs; there seem to be almost none who work solely with fiction but many who work exclusively or almost exclusively with nonfiction.

Which makes me wonder: why? Part of the reason might simply be that more nonfiction books move through stores in a given year than fiction, but I wonder also if part of the reason is that nonfiction simply has a shorter shelf life. I can’t imagine many pop nonfiction titles from, say, the 1930s to the 1960s are still read much because whatever fields those authors covered have changed sufficiently that their work is no longer useful save in a historical sense. Obviously, there are exceptions—both presidential candidates in the recent election cited Niebuhr Reinhold as an influence—but the general trend seems to hold.

But the novels of Bellow, Roth, and so forth are still fresh as the day they were published; I have ancient copies of For Whom the Bell Tolls and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King that are delightful. My used copy of John Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy is an original hardback. New copies of those works still sell. That’s a boon for readers but probably not so good for new writers, who have to compete with the masters. The result: a literary marketplace where it’s harder to break in as the length and number of established predecessors grows, leading to an equilibrium that favors nonfiction over fiction. “Monster political and celebrity books” flare brightly like supernovae while the literary stars are dimmer but give persistent light for those who would see them, while writers become more dependent on university and other forms of patronage to make it in a marketplace that, rightly or wrongly, doesn’t much value their work in a financial sense.

%d bloggers like this: