The death of the literary novel?

As I was away this weekend I’m a little behind in my newspaper-reading. I’ve been cherrypicking the weekend papers and only got round to reading yesterday’s news last thing yesterday evening, which means I’m up to date now but it was too late to post about this article when it was still possible to read it in the paper.

But anyway – the Guardian has a long and interesting feature on how much Waterstone’s is responsible for the decline of bookselling, and how much harder it would be for a modern literary talent to emerge given that publishers are terrified of taking a risk since the end of the Net Book Agreement.

The article starts in the Gower Street branch of Waterstone’s which is responsible for my birth, and overall I think it’s a good piece apart from one detail. The writer accepts the statement of former Waterstone’s MD Tim Coates that the chains brought literary culture to towns and cities in the UK which were only previously served by WH Smith’s and “probably, a not very good independent.” This statement is not tested. Leaving aside the generalised attack on independents, did Waterstone’s really create a market or, more likely, did they simply exploit a gap in existing demand? This is a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument, but it’s important as Waterstone’s sole claim to any sort of public good rests upon it.

My own personal experience of the chain is based on the testimony of various friends who have worked there and who now respond with a physical shudder of horror at the mention of the place. But the consequences of the chain’s power over publishers is far-reaching. I’ve often chided myself for not reading more contemporary fiction, but as I can only read so many books in my life I’m drawn to safe bets myself, ones I know I will enjoy, and these are usually by dead writers whose reputations are already established. But this is a bad habit.

As readers we need to take chances with new writers, giving ourselves the chance, in turn, of discovering the new greats. Publishers needs to accept this risk as well, or our literature will stultify. It becomes a vicious circle. The more scared publishers are of producing new works, the more readers will be disappointed by what is published; and disappointed readers will become less inclined to try new things next time, further evaporating the market for literary fiction.

So. On that note, I’m off to find something new to read.

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2 thoughts on “The death of the literary novel?

  1. Your post was interesting since it parallels the pub biz in the US. Barnes & Noble is the stand in for Waterstones here. I wonder if the strategy is the same there; the object is to push a restricted number of authors so inventories turn without real concern for the quality of product. (When you go into a store here and look at covers, its often damned hard to find the title, the author’s name is what’s marketed.) Problem is many are just like you (and me) – we’ve turned to past work that isn’t formula writing from a few good people “who are ridden hard and put up wet” and forced to always run low in the creative juices “petrol” tank.
    http://www.sandysays1.wordpress.com

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    1. Thanks. This is the thing – you can’t run the literary ‘industry’ as though it were a commodity. Writers don’t work like that, and all you get is a stifled literature, a bored public, and a shelf of factory-produced, branded book-products.

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