Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Guardian: Literary Fiction in Crisis as sales drop dramatically, Arts Council England reports

The sun may have set on the official English empire a generation or two ago so here in the United States where our empire is probably expiring but hasn't quite so ostentatiously demonstrated its shelf-life it may be a little harder to be sympathetic with the plight of England just yet.  Well, not really, the extinction-level crisis in the liberal arts in the United States is getting intermittently announced on a ... monthly basis here on our side of the Atlantic, too. 

Nonetheless, for those with more centuries to observe the respective rise and fall of a culture ...
(ACE), which revealed that collapsing sales, book prices and advances mean few can support themselves through writing alone.
The report found that print sales of literary fiction are significantly below where they stood in the mid-noughties and that the price of the average literary fiction book has fallen in real terms in the last 15 years.
The growth in ebook sales in genres such as crime and romance has not made up for the shortfall in literary fiction, prompting ACE to outline ways it intends to support affected authors.
“It would have been obviously unnecessary in the early 90s for the Arts Council to consider making an intervention in the literary sector, but a lot has changed since then – the internet, Amazon, the demise of the net book agreement – ongoing changes which have had a massive effect,” said ACE’s literature director Sarah Crown. “It’s a much more unforgiving ecosystem for authors of literary fiction today. We inevitably end up with a situation where the people best positioned to write literary fiction are those for whom making a living isn’t an imperative. That has an effect on the diversity of who is writing – we are losing voices, and we don’t want to be in that position.”
“There’s a belief that everyone can read, so everyone is a reader, but in reality, we’re on our phones all the time, on Twitter all the time,” said Crown. “We need to recognise there are other demands on people’s time, and we are saying that there is something so unique and important and necessary and fundamental about literary fiction in particular, that we need to focus on it and support it.”
However, literary novelist Will Self was not hopeful about the sector’s future. “Literary fiction is already being subsidised – think of all of the writers who are continuing to make a living now by teaching creative writing.  [that reminds me that I want to read Mark McGurl's The Program Era] They represent a change taking place in literature … It’s now more like quilting,” he said, describing books written on creative writing courses as “collective undertakings”.
“I think that creative writing programmes are a force for conformity and lack of experimentation,” said Self. He predicted that “as it becomes clear that the massive amounts of writers who are enrolling in these courses are going nowhere [serious fiction] will be a ‘conservatoire’ form, practised by young ladies and gentlemen, and followed by a select group … like classical music or easel painting.”

Don't tell that to John Borstlap ... not that he doesn't regard high culture as necessary for the survival of the West enough to be okay with the elites being elites and all.

A bit more than a century ago Sousa was afraid the nascent mechanical music industry would transform for the worse American musical culture.  He believed that amateurs were the lifeblood of any really sustainable musical culture, not the professionals. 

But then what if the vitality of an artistic culture is a lagging indicator of the state of an empire?  This is a deliberately confrontational thesis but if fans of the liberal arts could or would see the decline of the arts as an indication of a pendulum swing in which empires are on the way down and shift back, per that quote from Adams about studying war so his sons could be into poetry, then the era of Western civilization being the self-perceived pinnacle could just be over.

Not hat anyone asked me but if someone were to ask me whether I thought Western liberalism or the Christian faith would be most likely to survive into the 22nd century I'd say the Christian faith will, in some form, survive, but that Western liberalism has been less certain a thing.  I'd venture to say Western liberalism of the sort we took for granted in the last century was only able to survive as an uneasy hybrid of Greco-Roman philosophy and political thought heavily refracted through Jewish and Christian theological ideas and that as cultural war narratives for those four elements and additional elements from secularist thought all swirled together the balance of ingredients got lost.  The partisans of one or two of those five things want to believe that Western liberalism is just indebted to the ingredients they like and not also to the ingredients they don't like.  Take away the influence of Judaism and you lose Christianity altogether, too, and while Greece and Rome had satirical literature the level of political venom inherent in the most trenchant prophetic critiques of monarchic abuse in Jewish literature has an irreplaceable role to play in Western civilization as we know it. 

If the Western liberal tradition, as some conjectured, would outlive the Christian faith and religious faiths more generally, you'd never know it from these kinds of dire reports that there's a crisis of people not buying as much of stuff they used to buy that nobody actually needs to get through life.  Countless people have gone through life not even being literate.  It's not that I don't love to read ... it's that I admit to having become jaded about what passes for a "crisis" in liberal arts coverage and scholarship.  In an essay in Music, the Arts and Ideas Leonard B Meyer wrote half a century ago that when people in the "contemporary" West talk about the "intolerable" conditions that non-Westerners live in it can be easy to forget for how many thousands of years the super-majority of humanity lived in and still lives in those conditions.  In global historical terms we in the West are in the minority and what we regard as "intolerable" is from our perspective of consumption, not from the perspective of simply living or even actually being able to enjoy life. 

In a way ... given how expensive college has become and given how improbable it is that writers will make a living that can pay the bills from their writing how certain are we that literary fiction hasn't already been the domain of gentlemen and women of some modicum of leisure for a generation?

No comments: