Literary trends and the micro-genre
This week I happened across an article in the Guardian by Sam Leith, literary editor of the Spectator, on trends in book publishing. Specifically, he was bemoaning the micro-genre, and the spawning of waves of similar titles and content as authors try to cash in on momentary fashions.
While Leith acknowledged that “micro-genres have always been with us”, he wailed about the “late-1990s run of biographies of inanimate objects” and the “still barely abated torrent of abuse memoirs that followed A Child Called It” as well as the “flowering of “new nature writing” following the success of Robert MacFarlane. And finally, “the efforts of Henry Marsh, Adam Kay and Paul Kalanithi mean that everyone who has ever donned surgical scrubs now seems to be writing a book about it.” According to Leith, the currently trending micro-genres are “nonfiction books about the future, books about how to change your life, books about what it means to be/how we came to be human, and books about fucking Nazis.”
Leith points out that “amid the torrent, it’s very hard to know which of these are the good ones.” To me, its also an irony of capitalism: an economic system that is supposed to saturate us with choice brings about a deluge of products that are all the same.
The article reminded me of my own conflicted feelings after I attended a recent conference on the publishing industry. This conference was a great initiative which brought together literary agents, published authors and reps from major publishing houses to talk to emerging writers about what they’re in for during the publishing process. It was invaluable, particularly if you would like your book to sell- which most authors do. It was also valuable in case you thought books sold on merit.
Let’s be clear: they do not. Until this conference I had accepted the cliché that writing was the hard part; that if you slaved away on a high quality manuscript that aimed to be truthful (i.e. possibly depressing) rather than comfortable (chick lit, uplit) and it was good, a publisher would eventually sign you up on the basis that they believed in your project. After all, thinking outside the box and producing something unique is the essence of creativity, is it not? Producing a new take on life underpins the whole enterprise of writing a book, right?
One publisher stood up at the conference and said that a few years ago country romances were in, so if you were writing that, your chances of publishing success at that time were enhanced. Now, however, it is all about rural crime, following on from the success of Jane Harper’s The Dry. Later in the day a literary agent said, at least half-jokingly, that if you had the word “girl” in the title you were a shoo-in, given the recent success of Gone Girl, Girl On A Train, and earlier, The Girl With the Dagon Tattoo. (I pity Susanna Kaysen and Tracy Chevalier for their pre-trend books Girl Interrupted and Girl With A Pearl Earring but they both got film adaptations so they must have done ok).
The works that bring in the most money for publishing houses are the least challenging ones that comfortably pander to our insecurities (The Barefoot Investor, cookbooks about super foods) or our over-blown, empty desires (Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone?).
So how do we create the space- and by space I mean market- for literature that is challenging and important? It can’t all be about prize winners. For every literary title that wins the Miles Franklin, there are many worthy ones which won’t even get shortlisted, but which are no less valuable. How do these authors get read and survive financially to write another book? How do they justify trying to squeeze another contract out of their publisher when they have a track record of not being best-sellers?
I’m not naïve enough to think that publishers can survive by publishing highbrow literature alone. There is a tension between staying afloat and being able to support a literary author. Ultimately both readers and publishers need to take responsibility. Readers for buying trash, and publishers for cashing in on trash. This was brought home in the wake of the Belle Gibson cancer fraud, in which it was revealed that Penguin did not adequately check the veracity of Gibson’s claim to have cured herself of brain cancer through clean eating. Due diligence is one thing, but would Penguin have fallen over itself to publish a superfood cookbook if there was not an appetite for such garbage among the public? Possibly not.
Let’s finish with Kafka, who had something profound to say about the importance of quality books:
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.
Its my belief too, and one worth holding on to.