Susanna Kleeman has something very particular in mind as she tries to account for the “death” of literary fiction.
We don’t read fiction as much as we used to. Google ‘can’t read novels anymore’ and you’ll get more than 232 million hits. Yes, more novels are published than ever before and fiction sales are up in worldwide during the pandemic, though on a downward trajectory since the mid-noughties, and outsold by nonfiction since 2013, the gap widening annually, even in lockdown. And buying novels isn’t the same as actually reading them or looking to them as an essential way to reveal reality, the “axe for the frozen sea within us,” in Kafka’s phrase.
Today fiction is less read but more beautiful, with covers designed for display on screens and as personal signifiers online. We might not read novels but we still like the idea of them, souvenirs from a warm and fuzzy past we didn’t realise would get taken from us. One gets an increasing sense of new fiction as prestige objects, props and furniture like Neo’s secret box in The Matrix, hollowed out of Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation to become a stash for illegal software. The thought of actually reading one of these gorgeous products can feel more and more burdensome. Who’d read novels, given the incredible events of the ‘real’ world as it livestreams itself, outstripping all fiction and imagination, it seems.
Can we blame women? Johanna Thomas-Corr’s Observer article, How women conquered the world of fiction is one of several recent investigations into the disappearance of men and dominance of women in publishing over the past five years. Women now outrank men as both writers and readers, and as agents and acquisition editors (though the highest ranks of publishing are still overwhelmingly male). Thomas-Corr is careful to note that “many women feel suspicious that the ‘where are all the men?’ conversation too often goes hand-in-hand with the question: is the novel dead?” But since the dwindling of novels started before the rise of the women it’s not too fanciful to see the current woman-centric business of fiction as the rump of a once-larger enterprise, left over now to make books for a core female readership who have always found solace in invented worlds as an escape from the ‘real’ one.
But if women didn’t murder the novel, who did?
A particular villain lurches immediately to mind: the internet, which we so enjoy dipping into, as we once dipped into books during snatched moments and downtime once upon a time in a land far away. If the novel is dead, the internet is a prime suspect, the prime suspect perhaps, particularly in smartphone form. These magical devices, ever-present like body parts, portals to cyberspace distractions we dip into anytime anywhere, have erased the notion of downtime, blurring distinctions between private and public, work and play. It can’t be coincidence that novel sales in the UK and US started declining in the mid-noughties exactly when smartphones became ubiquitous. Maybe it’s the readers, not the novels, who died: the very act of tearing our eyes away from our phones to focus on any book or long text (fiction or nonfiction) that is the issue. We’re all fugged up in a tracked and multi-authored extravaganza of images, ads, games, work and lurid fragments we wade through via chance, the potential for novelty only a click away. You never know what might turn up next; you know perfectly well what will happen in most books. Tl;dr, as they say. And when we tire of this whirl we have its supposed opposite: the long-form streamed series, flattering us that we still have attention-spans while providing nuggets for future online discussion, their episodic and sometimes glacial pace winding us down and permitting simultaneous surfs.
But: so what, if we’re not reading novels. Why deny ourselves? Perhaps storytelling and its major practitioners have moved on and it’s quaint to shackle narrative between book covers now that gorgeous AV and images reign and we can gawk at snippets of ‘real’ drama everywhere. Fascinating stories, not their formats or whether they’re true or not, are what we’re interested in, after all. Perhaps novels were always a placeholder: our insatiable nosiness and appetite for conflict constrained in the past by lack of visual and surveillance technology – or fear of censure and self-exposure – so we were forced to make up stuff (or call it made-up) and print it on paper. Snobbish Luddism, to try to keep it there, now that tech and changed morals unleash the real thing.
Yes, type on a page or e-reader is great and all, with its nuance and direct connection of one mind to another, the imaginative work required of readers paying off with a deeper connection than visual storytelling generally musters. But you can’t tweet at the same time, can you? (You can if you’re listening to audiobooks). And who wants to work? Maybe novels today are best thought of as script first drafts: low-tech nubs of some future screen-based entertainment, if they delight enough. Get over it: the internet dunnit. Move on. Case closed.
But what we’re talking about here isn’t permanently-networked cyberspace per se. It’s the attention economy, cyberspace hijacked by a digital capitalism that’s been designed by cunning psychologists wise to our every weakness, pinging us with opportunities to spend, connect, earn and try to escape every waking moment of our lives. Owned, measured, manipulated and addicted: a total change from the freewheeling early days of the internet. It didn’t have to be this way.
But if it’s the enthralling of audiences by smartphone-delivered capitalism that murdered reading, why is it novels that took the big hit, overtaken by nonfiction whose increasing sales more than make up for the losses in fiction? Is it just that our altered brains can no longer take invented stuff, that we hunger for now-available ‘unmediated’ reality? If a pristine reader emerged from forty years’ seclusion in forests, unaffected by smartphones, would they engage greedily with contemporary fiction? Or is the fug affecting the writers too? Are the axes blunt?
Novels are called novels because they’re supposed to be novel. Perhaps more than any other art form we need them to tell us with what we don’t already know. Their length and the solitary personal commitment of time it takes to read one makes that essential. You can’t have a novel on in the background. Either the drive of plot, needing to know what happens next, or the page-by-age freeing insights they deliver – their ability to melt us, make us see the frozen truth via a friendship we develop on the page – are what makes us read through to the end. It doesn’t mean every novel has to be groundbreaking, and escapism is perfectly valid. But every good novel tells us something new, about ourselves, about the world.
Part of why novels have had special status in our culture is that they’ve been the unique voice of one author, one of the few cheap ways for nobodies to have their say. Films and streamed series are expensive multi-authored productions made to recoup maximum profits. That means designing them to please mass audiences. The financial risk is much greater than for novels if they are too challenging or strange. To publish nonfiction you need an existing platform: recognised expertise and standing in the world you’re writing about, to be an accepted authority. To write novels other people want to read and will support you to write, you can be a total quirky outsider. You don’t have to be, but that’s what popular novelists often have been and why we have valued them, for their novel insights, though this is less true today, like many things. And it’s harder to be an outsider today, in a world of public, policed and templated opinions, with repercussions for wrong-thinking. It might mean not having social media or a phone, major hassles indeed.
Whether you’re an outsider or not, it takes time and focus to write a novel, and some degree of stepping back from the world. And the attention economy makes that increasingly difficult for writers too. Writing also takes money, or some kind of financial support. But as digital corporations have got richer off our attention, many people are poorer, and libraries and arts funding have been cut. Once there was a different setup for people who wanted to make things: art schools, the dole, relatively cheap rent, a critical press, book and record shops, foreign films, public service TV and radio promoting alternative culture. Now there is no alternative and that ecology is gone, replaced by something more efficient that has swallowed, co-opted and mainstreamed ‘counterculture’, something that justifies itself almost wholly with the financial pragmatism of the market. What is good is what will sell or attract mass attention, usually online, and that’s that, our age tells us. All other options have been tried and found wanting. To protest, or want a different setup, is naïve or performative. We’re snared not just by the attention economy of digital capitalism, but also by its weary whisper:
the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.
– Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism (Zer0 Books, 2009)
This ‘capitalist realism’ marks a radical change in the approach of creative industries: it wasn’t just the state that once subsidised artists. Big record companies and publishers would insulate makers from market pressure via advances, much reduced today. Publishers would take on risks and hold faith with authors they believed in whose sales were initially modest, hoping they’d find wide audiences eventually. Now, in an age of ‘free’ online content, Amazon and other massive digital services, increased efficiency and transparency, the rise of fragmented and niche interests, where precise measurement tools provide data to crunch, where ruling algorithms are programmed for short-term profit, hope becomes harder to justify as a business strategy. This is especially true when increasingly few massive commercial publishers control so much of the market and when initiatives like the UK’s Net Book Agreement have been disbanded, slashing book prices and making them variable. Books are a commodity now, like everything else.
A commodity, defined by economics, is a fungible resource: something that can be replaced by another identical instance without it mattering who produced it. Strange, to think of books as identical instances, when in the past we so fetishized authors as unique voices. And it’s true that there are still individual authors who matter, whose names function as brands, because they’ve produced unexchangeable novels – or are already known to us as celebrities in other fields. But it is also true that books are increasingly thought of as genres, groupings that contain similar stories, plots and tones. And increasingly these genres are getting subdivided, into ever-smaller microgenres, so that we can have techno thrillers and cosy mysteries and biopunk and paranormal pregnancy romances. This is also true of self-published books, whose authors take great care to self-categorise in microniches. A major reason, apart from technology, that self-publishing is viable these days because of genres and subgenres. Why? So books that consumers might like and buy can be found, via metadata, on Amazon and other book retail sites and databases and increasingly niche bestseller lists. So that they can be found as products distinct from their unknown authors and bought easily online, where we find and buy most things these days.
What matters to publishers in this environment are genre trends, rather than the unpredictable power of individual voices. That’s why publishers like debut authors so much: their inherent frisson of novelty and promise is a good proxy, in this world of genre, for the uniqueness we once expected from authors: this one hasn’t bored you yet, why not take a punt? If you’ve swapped the strategy of selling a few big books to general audiences for one of selling lots of different books to lots of different fragmented markets – a genre strategy – then you need lots of interchangeable new writers to provide the interchangeable commodities, all those millions of new books you have grouped into more manageable genre clumps to attract fragmented consumers based on past trends. When you replace your human, critical eye – your hunches – with machine guidance, then genres, summaries, similarities are what the machines will use as the basic calculating unit for their crunches, rather than full texts. And they will base their analysis and predictions on past data, rather than dowse for original hits.
The genre is the value for most big publishers today, unless the author is already known. This is true everywhere, even in ‘literary’ fiction, supposed home of originality, which has splintered into its own repetitive official and unofficial niches (fragmentary autofiction, black women in white employment, reading group fiction, historical revisionism, identity tourism etc). There are honourable exceptions of course. That genre has happened to literary fiction has big implications. This used to be where we went to find risky insights, not confirmations, voices that rang true beyond ‘commercial’ trends. Which isn’t to say that risks can’t be commercial: ‘A lot of time people don’t know what they want until you show it to them,’ as Steve Jobs used to say.
But listen to top literary agent Jonny Geller in his TED talk on what makes a current literary bestseller:
As a reader, you look for a story that takes you on a journey from somewhere you haven’t been to a place you know not where. But as literary agent I look for something slightly different. I’m looking for a story that takes you on a journey, but from somewhere familiar on a bridge to somewhere new. That may surprise you. You may think: hang on, I only read original fiction, what’s the point of reading something familiar? But it doesn’t really work like that. Because publishers find original material very difficult to market. By its nature it changes everything that’s preceded it, it’s hard to compare anything to. To quote Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men: ‘Publishers, they can’t handle the original’.
This could be Mark Fisher discussing contemporary music in his talk The Slow Cancellation of the Future in Zagreb, 2014:
I don’t think we expect music to be a radical break from the past anymore. We expect music now, and culture more broadly, if it’s different, to be a subtle remodulation, a subtle reconfiguration only recognised by initiates and aficionados. It won’t be a gross sensational shift that is readily apparent to anybody.
This conformist and retro business strategy bleeds down to advice given to prospective authors, who are increasingly numerous. We might not read novels, but more and more people feel they can write one. And why not, since their stories have become familiar and the instructions for their creation more and more clear. Getting a novel published has never been more proscribed and professionalised. Gone are the days of novelists as bad boys, askance from the culture. Cocks can no longer be snooped. Look at publisher, agent, and other industry websites and social media: you will find many rules and regulations about structure, plot points, genres, hero journeys, queries, pitch letters, etiquette, comp titles and so forth, plus instructions on self-promotion, DIY marketing, newsletters, blogs, how to build followers, social media decorum, extending even to advice about not using social reading sites to ill-review potential peers.
This is the “precorporation” of novelists, Mark Fisher’s term for the “pre-emptive formatting and shaping of desires, aspirations and hopes by capitalist culture” (Capitalist Realism). And it is necessary even for those who plan to self-publish: the identical metadata, marketing, discoverability and sales strategies will apply since Amazon is the marketplace and there’s no alternative publishing ecology. Self-publishing authors who want readers must be canny businesspeople, as all authors are best advised to become these days.
The precorporation of authors has itself been monetised, with new businesses springing up to mint coin from unpublished noobs. Once novelists just wrote, learning their craft by reading other novels. Then, post-war, universities and colleges began to offer undergraduate and MA courses in creative writing. In the past twenty years the industry has bloomed, extending into the literary establishment and commercial sphere. There are talks, courses and festivals to improve your manuscript and pitches and give you access to the industry or improve your chances of successful self-publication. There are editing and cover design services, targeted ads to purchase, blog tours, pricey PR. You don’t have to pay to get your novel published but forking out can help you leapfrog over others in the slushpile and elsewhere. But the cost of many of these enterprises, despite initiatives and scholarships, can mean that only certain sorts people can afford them, often established professionals with success in other areas. Kafka worked in insurance: being a professional doesn’t mean you can’t be a good writer. This is testified by the increasing number of literary professionals (editors, publishers, literary agents and others) who are getting published. And yes, TS Eliot was an editorial director too.
The most vital hoops would-be novelists are trained to jump through are to do with condensing down your work and self for familiar norms. Most manuscripts will never be opened: it is the cover letter that is the thing. You will be taught not only to anchor your ‘new’ take in familiar terrain by declaring your genre and peers, but to sell gatekeepers on the rudiments of your PR and marketing, from one-line hooks to culturally-approved aspects of your biography. You must name your networks, prove your social worth as a good literary citizen, show an existing audience – via social following, blog and other subscribers – or at the very least establish yourself as a potential busy bee, not an introverted misanthrope snorting your toots from underground lairs. In other words: you must learn to present not your work but its chatter-worthy top line and how nicely that and you blend with online publishing culture.
These have always been important considerations but they are now the most important, trumping the quality of manuscripts. The savvy will know to seed them into the very marrow of their projects from the get-go, not try to shoehorn later. ‘Write what you know’ is familiar advice; precorporation is what shrewd would-be novelists have come to know. The choice is no longer between writing ‘genre’ or ‘literary’ fiction, or even between traditional or self-publication. It’s about precorporating for big publishers and major retailers to slot into a sales, exposure and discoverability matrix, or writing for smaller houses and getting none of that. In a world of genre, amateur criticism and online retail, exacerbated by the pandemic, in a business environment primed to squeeze more juice from existing markets rather than create new ones, in the gaud of capitalist cyberspace where novels are totemic and attention span limited, it’s the top line that sells.
“All that is solid melts into PR,” Fisher says, showing us how the originality of our age lies in its tech, platforms and digital promotion rather than the retro and familiar content they deliver. In recent times, book design, marketing, PR and sales strategies have become radical art forms practised by big publishers intertwined with major retailers, delivering ‘must-read’ hooks within a closed shop of blurbers, bloggers and retweeters. But when most effort is top-loaded into the upfront of seductive selling, the actual books can feel like rehashed afterthoughts. This is particularly true in fiction, which is after all just someone’s made up story, unsupported by the wonder of the world and its amazing facts, which nonfiction can always rely on. Didn’t live up to the hype is a frequent complaint in online reader reviews. And this is very dangerous for fiction, feeding the existing sense of novels as dull and effortful compared to cyberspace. At the very moment when novels should most compel and dazzle to ward off their most serious challenge, the industry behind them seem to have given up the ghost.
But haven’t we all?
Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie maker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labor is ours, and the zombies it makes are us.
– Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism
Accepting that there is no alternative to commerce has cut something big from us: the possibility of things being different. Change is impossible, only performative. We stay frozen. The world is known now, it tells us: disappointing history, big data and surveillance have made it so. And this has implications for fiction, often structured with change at its core. It also means that fiction itself and anything not ‘real’ but imaginary, or to do with personal reverie, private thoughts, genuine boredom, dipping out of the ‘real’ world and our sad ‘enlightenment’, can feel fey. There are no ghosts, there is no alternative, we don’t want to be melted, get the memo: made-up stuff can make us want to curl our toes and scream “it’s not true” at the naïfs or players responsible, even if we are publishing professionals. Activities here feel hollow. It is though we’ve become intercised children from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels: cut from our animal spirits and left soulless, drifting without creativity or imagination, unable to find purpose or tell stories anymore, except to hype them for pay. Even old novels can’t help us, if we could still read them. Their hopes and emotions feel sundered from us, quaint.
A question remains: Did this all just happen by accident or has there been a deliberate plot against fiction?
That might sound paranoid, until you read how the CIA in the 1930s infiltrated literary publishing and were the major funders of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the influential hothouse for the well-known names of post-war American literary fiction and the big daddy of creative writing courses everywhere. Its agenda for writing is described by Timothy Aubry in The New York Times as: “sensations, not doctrines; experiences, not dogmas; memories, not philosophies”. These personal, ‘realistic’ inward journeys, centring individual experience, became and continue to be the major hallmarks of ‘literary’ fiction. They’re also the hallmark of identity politics and its prioritising of personal emancipation in a disenchanted world, the focus of what passes for activism these days.
Current ‘literary’ fiction, descended from Iowa, has two other important characteristics. First: it must be sober and ‘realistic’: that is: set in our world. The only form of otherworldliness permitted in posh fiction is ‘magic realism’, a genre historically associated with non-Anglo authors and performative inclusion. Otherwise fantasy is for geeks and kids, and must reside in ‘lesser’ genres. Ditto science fiction – though a limited amount of ‘speculative’ fiction is acceptable, inevitable given the bewildering pace of tech and extraordinary events.
Second, plot is secondary to character, or identity. Despite centuries of plotted classics, novels with plots at their fore are now inherently considered ‘genre’ – used here as shorthand for lesser fiction, produced for purely commercial reasons, not the literature that can reveal deep truths. It’s as if the very thing that gets us into reading as kids, wanting to know what happens next, must be chucked out as adults if we want to read seriously. Perhaps that’s why children’s novels are popular with adults too these days.
What did the CIA have against plot in fiction? That the very question sounds laughable shows how far the power of novels has fallen. We know that CIA involvement in the US culture industry in the 20th century was part of an ideological war on communism. But the writing the CIA funded wasn’t a jingoist rebuttal of communism and celebration of capitalism. More subtly and insidiously, the inward turn it directed moves us away from using fiction to explore ideology, the unifying issues affecting everybody – letting outsiders with the gift of the gab give their two cents on, or two fingers to, the wider state of play. If you want not just to defeat communism but to maintain, forever, your status quo, then it’s a clever strategy to encourage both a distaste for plots – especially big plots or parables with messages that mirror current times too closely – and the fragmentation of society into rival identities, or genres, you support in their separate personal liberation. And in this, the CIA, or their directing hand, have an unlikely ally: postmodernism, whose core essence, in Lyotard’s famous description is “incredulity towards metanarratives”.
We are used to thinking of postmodernism as a brilliant alternative analysis practised by left-wing academics rightly suspicious of the grand narratives of religion, history, theory and ideology that have controlled us for centuries. But the dismantling of the very idea of big overarching stories with meaning has been co-opted, Mark Fisher and others show, as their very useful core day-to-day by the very institutions once responsible for the most self-serving and least truthful metanarratives. Things can be fragmented or episodic but nothing works or holds together because nothing works or holds together, our current culture and politics tell us. Given this, the only correct modes of expression are fragments of small sentimental personal epiphanies or its flipside: immobilising irony and cynicism, the famous Seinfeldian “no hugging, no learning.” Don’t blame us, guv. There’s no point.
What a relief: not to have to do the work of coherent plotting, even in ‘genre’ fiction, which so often these days cheats with rushed and crazy endings. The same in movies and streamed series, those bastions of cliff-hangers, who deliver episodic satisfactions with bombastic special effects, action sequences and dizzying revelations, but disappoint in their finales. Reeled in by top-loaded upfronts, strung along by twists and thrills, who cares how it pans out, as long as we’ve been persuaded to part with cash and attention. But in stories, the end is what matters: endings bring meaning, catharsis, resolution. And these are missing too in current affairs. How often has an astonishing ‘real’ event topped the news for days or weeks, then disappeared without conclusion. No wonder conspiracy theories rush in to fill the vacuum – the human need for stories that explain persists.
But it’s when we look at what the CIA might have had against fantasy and imagination that we’re reminded of the real power of fiction, and its cheapest, most portable and therefore most dangerous manifestation: the novel, where cheeky nobodies once entertained everyone, sometimes by Bronx cheers. Fiction trumps reality by doing what only fiction can do: making metaphors, building whole other made-up enclosed worlds to comment better on the ‘real’ one, which is otherwise too big and complex for us to contend with as a whole. You can always get knocked out on technicalities by wrong or outdated fact in nonfiction. But parables give the timeless freedom to express obliquely, making readers draw the parallels, look more closely. And there is much to be looked closely at in our current ‘real’ world, a strange place of novelty and radical change, despite the retro comfort of its swaddling culture. We might not like fiction much anymore but that doesn’t mean we’re not living in it.
Susanna Kleeman is a writer from London who works in digital tech. Her first book, MY REJECTIONS (2020) is a short memoir of hubris, humiliation and triumph against the odds. Her first novel TWICE is out now from Zero Books.