The death of the literary novel?

The Australian newspaper has posed the question (again) of whether the literary novel is dying a feeble and unrecognised death.

Author and academic Mark Davis recently conducted research that shows the number of home-grown literary novels produced by Australia’s mainstream publishers has almost halved since the mid-1990s.
In a paper on the decline of the literary paradigm, published last year, Davis concluded: “The project of the 1960s to the late ’90s, in which publishers competed for prestige, of constructing a national literary canon, has otherwise ended … It’s reasonably safe to predict that the activities of reading, studying, writing and publishing literary fiction will increasingly become – if they aren’t already – the preserve of a rump of ‘true believers’.”

Shona Martyn, publishing director at HarperCollins (and a person with impeccable taste in books – like mine), has a slightly different take, and suggests things have never been that great, unless you happen to be Tim Winton or Peter Carey.

She says: “It’s tragic to see how many of our most awarded and talented writers sell in Australia … under 1000 copies.”
Books short-listed for the Miles Franklin literary award, the nation’s most respected literary prize, often sell “well under 5000”, she adds. Sales of books that win premiers’ awards can languish in the hundreds.
“Australians are not buying a broad range of literary fiction,” Martyn says. “And in terms of buying an unknown Australian author, they’re very, very sceptical.”

I suspect she’s got a point there. Lots of people have always sold just a few books, and a few people have sold lots of books. The problem arises when only certain kinds of books ever get to be published.
I recently heard an industry panel on Ramona Koval’s Books show on Radio National claim to be shocked (after seeing the new Nielson Bookscan figures) at how few local writers ever sold more than 5000. They’d been in the business for years and had no idea things were that bad.
For many authors, that’s not about a lack of promotion, or local loyalty, or cultural cringe – or even that it’s a bad book, although some undoubtedly are.
After all, I remember the good old days when major publishing houses still produced several volumes of fine new poetry every year. Ah. Nostalgia.
I don’t think it’s peculiar to Australia. British writers report similar numbers (even more dismal when you compare the population levels). Kiwis say much the same.
Cause for depression? Perhaps no more than usual, although in this market it means that the buying, distribution and shelving policies of the ever-growing big bookselling chains become that much more critical.

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