Sunday, October 26, 2014

Literary fiction has not gone entirely the way of the dodo.

I recently read The Luminaries (Granta), the very long and complex novel by New Zealand writer Eleanor Catton, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2013. It’s a very well-written book, although not one that I particularly enjoyed. The reason I mention it here is because it pleases me to think that a book of this type—some 832 pages in length, written in a pseudo-Victorian style, with a very complex formal structure—can find a publisher in this day and age. It can go on to win major literary awards, and also sell quite well. It’s not a best-seller, I guess, in that it probably did not make the NYT best-seller list—if it did, please correct me—and it may not have reached the Amazon top 100—again correct me if I am wrong. But I believe that as of August this year it had sold well in excess of half a million copies. I wouldn’t be whinging if one of my books sold a tenth as many.

I also recently read Burial Rites (Picador) by Hannah Kent, another novel which would hardly be considered mainstream or commercial. Again, it is great that there are still publishers willing to invest in books which have artistic merit, without necessarily having guaranteed market success. Having said that, I think a movie of Burial Rites is at least in the development stage; I believe a mini-series is planned for The Luminaries. So there is probably even money to be made from non-mainstream fiction too, for those who are ready to take the chance on it.

I often complain about the quality of the books that emerge from mainstream publishers. They seem to cater mainly to the current fad, with little regard for literary quality. While I can understand that publishing is first and foremost a business these days, I’m sure there is room within the publishing world to invest some of the profits from the blockbuster best-sellers into projects which may not have best-seller potential, but which nevertheless have artistic, cultural and literary value. There will even be a few of these that, perhaps surprisingly, more than pay their way.

It’s also pleasing to realise that there are plenty of readers out there who are willing to work a little harder, and don’t necessarily want their books to mimic movies and/or video games. 

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