The Decline of Literary Fiction

I recently read an article by Tim Lott entitled Why should we subsidise writers who have lost the plot?

It concerns the recent realisation that sales of literary fiction are on the decline, probably because their authors fail to engage readers with any sort of story. It makes the observations that literary pundits believe that …plot and story [have] long been unfashionable on the literary scene… and that ...plot was for “silly boys”, and that literary writing is perceived to be a formulaic form of writing.

I have to agree with him.

Here we are seeing exactly the kind of divide that separates ‘literary’ work from what people nowadays call ‘genre’. The exponents of both types of work tend to deride each other.

As an author I have always felt that what I wrote encompassed some elements that could be described as ‘literary’, because I write work where the prose and the structure of the words are important, and are not just used as a vehicle to tell a story. In other words I like to feel that my work is crafted in such a way that reading the words and the sentences is pleasurable and forms a core element of the book.

That doesn’t mean that I ignore the plot and the characters. To me, leaning towards ‘literature’ as an art form in itself smacks of radical tendencies, and that can’t be good.

Other forms of entertainment and creativity suffer from the same fates. Pure art, such as the works that compete for the Turner prize are just as radical. While art critics say they love them, an unmade bed or a cow cut in half are not the common man’s perception of Art.

Classical music suffered, and is still suffering from, a decline in appreciation.
This hasn’t been helped by the new generation of classical music writers.
I recently attended an orchestral concert, where we were treated to some some Grieg and Stravinsky, and a bit of ‘modern’ classical music. I have to say that I enjoyed the Grieg very much. The Stravinsky was terrifying, but in a good way, and was the sort of thing that a doctor ought to prescribe if you were having trouble emptying your bowels, but at least it had some structure. The modern classical piece was, well, awful. It was the first element of the concert and I was uncertain as to whether the orchestra was actually playing anything meaningful yet, or whether they were still tuning up. It had no structure and no discernable melody, it was just a string of noises. I can’t even say that I was relieved when it was over because it didn’t evoke any sort of emotion in me at all.

Some things just get old, and don’t stand the test of time. They can be revived, but the most successful ways of doing that have been to combine them with modern approaches to create a fusion. This is the only future that I see for what could be described as ‘literary’ writing. Not trying to repeat the works of the past, which have been done to completion. More block prints of tins of soup will not carry Andy Warhol’s art to new levels. It’s been done. Bigger writing on the wall will not pull Banksy’s graffiti to a new audience. It’s been done. Classical music as we know it is good. It’s been done. So too I think has the concept of traditional literary writing. Done. Was good, but if you want to keep it alive, like anything else, it has to change.

We don’t ride about in horses and carts anymore. People still make them because they evoke memories, and waving at passers by from the window of a carriage makes you feel swanky, but they’re impractical, out of date, and the vast majority of people aren’t interested in owning one because their expectations of transport have changed.

The expectation of modern readers is that they’ll be entertained, and probably the only way way to keep literary concepts alive is to move with the times.

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