Monday, November 16, 2009

Who Killed Literary Fiction?


According to this Ben Yagoda's new book, Memoir did.  Here's an excerpt form the salon.com book review: More truly provocative is Yagoda's assertion that the rise of memoir shows how "authorship has been democratized"; everyone has a story to tell and who better to tell it than the one who lived it? We put less faith in expertise and objectivity, and more in what's spoken "straight from the heart." Furthermore the authenticity of a first-person account of a true story will, in many readers' minds, make up for a lack of the literary finesse required in fiction. James Frey could not find a publisher for the preening, bombastic "A Million Little Pieces" when he first attempted to sell it as a novel; marketed as a memoir, it was a hit, and continued to sell well even after he was publicly disgraced for making up many of the book's more melodramatic events.  Ugh.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but with Frey's book it was the car accident factor--you couldn't look away and in the gawking, all you could think was wow, this really happened? With no pain killers? Teeth removed? They fucked her in every single bodily orifice? Her ears? Really? Wow.

So that one may be in a class of its own.

Anonymous said...

one example does not an industry-wide trend make. nice try tho, yoda.

Chazz said...

Frey lied a bit, got a bad bounce and was hung out to dry by his publishers. He brought them a novel. They classified it as a memoir. Most of it was true. More important, lots of people loved the book and still loved it after Oprah gave him a dangerous flogging. (Had he gone back to his addiction or committed suicide after that--a possibility he alluded to in the interview-- Oprah would have received some nasty blowback on beating him silly (as if authors have any say in how they're classified and marketed)for the unforgiveable crime of offending The Oprah. She's been kinder to child molesters she's interviewed. (She's a touchy one who will now have me killed. E.g. Franzen says he doesn't want to play in her club and suddenly it's bye-bye book club and her apparently overstated commitment to literature.)

Has memoir killed literary fiction? Literary fiction had already opened the window, climbed out on the ledge and yearned for the cement far below before the cult of celebrity was yelling "Jump! Jump! Jump!" There are just too many other variables. There's Wii and Playstation and satellite and satellite radio and web porn and sunny days, brains that are rewired for impatienc and a lousy economy. To pronouce our literary downfall upon one thing seems bombastic. Maybe even preening.

Little Richard said...

Hell, folks. Million Little Pieces came out during the Bush administration. His lies didn't cost anybody their lives...

Which is maybe what really killed literary fiction: who's awake out there!

Everybody so danged entangled in the quest for publication and fame and what not, when really we need some voices--some voices that are so clear and true they melt the ears of the agents who hear them.

Chazz said...

Okay. I can think of an agent or two whose ears I'd like to melt.

gimme said...

I hate to say this every single time this subject comes up, but what killed literary fiction was a profit-based model of publishing - ie: a corporate model.

Literary fiction has never been widely read or made much money. But it was kept around by crazy folks who believed it was important to keep publishing it, whether it made money or not.

But literature lovers don't decide what gets published anymore; marketing guys do. And from a marketing standpoint, literature has ALWAYS been a waste of time.

I've had two EDITORS in the last 6 months tell me directly: "I wanted to publish your book but I couldn't convince the marketing guys."

30 years ago, convincing an editor was all it took...

Anonymous said...

Maybe the answer is a not for profit model. Isn't One Story oganized as such? A dot org to publish quality lit.

Anonymous said...

Maybe there will be a West Coast shift in literary publishing. I don't think the movie industry would sit back and let literary fiction slowly die, look how many critically acclaimed and commercially successful movies are based on novels. Movie moguls could revive literary publishing. I can dream.

Next said...

Gimme: Um, okay, but once again people assume that no popular books are 'literary,' which strikes me as absolute garbage. Ian McEwan? J.M. Coetzee? These are challenging books that sell very well. It may be true that writers are no under more of an obligation now to be 'crossover artists,' but it is hard to see why that is a bad thing. profit=bad is such a tired argument.

gimme said...

"but once again people assume that no popular books are 'literary,'"

I don't see anyone assuming that.

"but it is hard to see why that is a bad thing."

If you're a fan of non-commercial literary fiction, it's not hard at all.

If your taste runs more towards "crossover artists" then obviously it won't matter much to you.

Anonymous said...

Next,
I think when people talk about things like "corporate greed" ruining it for "serious" authors, I believe most people are talking about the deluge of non-fiction junk books. Since relationship books, celebrity memoirs, celebrity cookbooks, pop management/business books, etc are easy to sell, publishers put all their energies into them, and fiction is an afterthought. I can't speak for Gimme, but these are my thoughts.

It's true that some established lit fic authors are still popular, and Young Adult is thriving. Perhaps we should cater to the teen market and get them hooked on literary fiction while they are still impressionable.

Most middle aged people are not buying short story collections and novels, they're buying crap like "sTORI Telling: the Tori Spelling story" or whatever the hell it's called. I found a copy at work and read it, and it's hard to believe that this is what serious authors are competing against. But apparently, people are buying this junk in huge numbers.

Next said...

Gimme: The title of this post is "Who Killed Literary Fiction?" which certainly implies that there isn't much literary fiction around in the bookstores--or doing well. That is false. If you mean, "Who killed non-commercial literary fiction?" then that too is false--I provided a few examples of non-commercial literary fiction that have become popular(okay, McKewan is commercial, but Coetzee isn't, and I don't know too many people who snuggle up beside Forster-Wallace at night with a glass of white wine and a box of chocolates). What you really seem to be saying is that what killed non-commercial literary fiction is the 'market'--um, okay, but we get back to the same point we always get to in LROd: maybe the market just killed the BAD non-commercial literary fiction? What evidence do we have for great fiction not getting published? Perhaps your book is wonderful, Gimme, I don't know. I do know of a few friends who have written great books that they can't get published, because of 'the market.' But my hunch is that they are the exception. The vast, vast majority of writers who can't sell in 'the market' are bad writers, non-commercial or otherwise. That's why it sees weird to me to complain about profit motive.

I have a follow up, but I'll wait to hear what you all think about the above.

gimme said...

"I provided a few examples of non-commercial literary fiction that have become popular"

That's an oxymoron.

Non-commercial literary fiction, is, by definition, literary fiction that doesn't appeal to a wide audience and doesn't sell very much (ie: MOST literary fiction, historically).

If it becomes popular it is *commercial*. And yes, occasionally something literary becomes commercial (Hemingway, for example, sold tons of books). But, most of what we call "literary fiction" has never sold very well (Faulkner and Fitzgerald, for example, hardly sold at all during their lifetimes). THIS kind of stuff - the stuff that doesn't sell a lot right away, but is deemed to have great literary "merit" - is no longer being published, because it's all about the immediate bottom line.

If you can't see these changes, which virtually everyone in the industry fully acknowledges, you aren't paying much attention, Next, or you don't really understand what we mean when we use the term "literary fiction."

Next said...

Gimme: C'mon man, I know what literary fiction is. I write it, and I read it. I'd be more convinced by your argument if you pointed to a few more modern-day writers who are brilliant, have maybe published a book, or a few short stories here and there, but who can't make ends meet because of the 'system.' I guess my prejudice is still that if a work is good enough, it will be published, at least by a university press. It is true it is harder--but most people "in the industry," to use your term, acknowledge this is because of the massive advances being paid out--the speculating, in other words. I'm really not sure this is because we are less inclined to read good literary fiction these days. Rather, publishing houses have played their cards wrong by betting everything on one hand, rather than playing a more long-term strategy. We might be agreeing, I don't know. Interested to hear your thoughts.

gimme said...

"I'm really not sure this is because we are less inclined to read good literary fiction these days. Rather, publishing houses have played their cards wrong by betting everything on one hand, rather than playing a more long-term strategy."

If you'll look back you'll see that that is, actually, exactly my point.:)

Anonymous said...

What do you call Jhumpa Lahiri? Commercial? Or Ha Jin? I'd call them literary and books that sold well.

Next said...

I don't think that WAS your point, actually, gimme. You said,

"I hate to say this every single time this subject comes up, but what killed literary fiction was a profit-based model of publishing - ie: a corporate model.

Literary fiction has never been widely read or made much money. But it was kept around by crazy folks who believed it was important to keep publishing it, whether it made money or not."

You are conflating profit-based models. If you buy US bonds, you are playing a low-risk strategy; junk bonds, or hedge funds in general, are obviously more risky. Publishing houses have given up on solid mid-list authors--stupidly--to push massive names that either sell huge and make make the advance, or don't and sink the whole ship. That's a bad profit-based model in the publishing world. But we have just gone from one profit-based model to another, not from "crazy folks" who didn't care how much money they lost, to Dick Cheney-type Titanic steerers, as you suggest. Publishing houses have always wanted to make money, and they did make money, just on a longer term, less risky profit-type strategy. I would agree that houses are certainly LESS inclined to take on non-commercial literary fiction now, because of the new profit-model. But I wouldn't say that we have gone from no-profit model to a profit-model, as you imply, if not say directly.

Anonymous said...

LROD,

Do you notice that comments get snarkier during the creative writing job-hunt season?!

Writer, Rejected said...

Oh, are there any creative writing jobs left? I thought academic institutions pretty much abandoned its writers/artists when there's an economic recession.

gimme said...

"Publishing houses have always wanted to make money, and they did make money, just on a longer term, less risky profit-type strategy."

Yes, they have always wanted to make money, but not in the corporate sense of "maximizing profits NOW." That is what I mean by a "profit-based model."

Many of the people who ran publishing in the "good old days" were somewhat eccentric "patron" types (often with a good chunk of family money financing the whole thing) who considered it their mission to promote important literature. They also pursued best-sellers, of course, because the money from those were what allowed them to publish stuff like Faulkner, which made zero money.

This is not a "profit model." This is "sustainability."

When the corporations took over, they tried to impose a corporate model on an industry which is basically unsuited to it: books. Now they've reduced the whole industry to celebrity memoirs, since those are the only books that can generate the kind of short-term profits corporations require.

The entire concept of a corporation is, inherently, unsustainable, IMO, but that's a whole other discussion, and we're already getting a little sidetracked into discussions of economics models here.

But the end result is - indisputably - that when profit is the main objective, at the expense of everything else, most literary fiction inevitably falls by the wayside. Not because people are necessarily less interested in it - just because it is unlikely to generate the kind of sales that will satisfy the corporate model of profit.

Anonymous said...

interesting point anon 12:01, but i don't think mfa applicants hang out here. i think they post to agent blogs, and the mfa blog. good for a chuckle at the life stresses faced by 22-26 year old, upper middle class, liberal arts graduates.