THE DECLINE OF LITERARY FICTION (AND MICROHISTORY AS ALTERNATIVE STORYTELLING)

A recent report by the British Arts Council, “Literature in the 21st Century: Understanding Models of Support for Literary Fiction” (http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication/literature-21st-century-understanding-models-support-literary-fiction) has unleashed much controversy about what exactly ails the most demanding form of prose writing. It is obvious that sales are going down with many literary fiction writers now being unable to live off their artistic vocation (please note that the top-selling book of 2017 in the UK is… Jamie Oliver’s 5 Ingredients – Quick & Easy Food with 716,000 copies sold; for the top 100 see https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/30/bestsellers-2017-top-100-philip-pullman-jamie-oliver-margaret-atwood).

The terms of the debate following the issuing of the report are focused, as it was to be expected, on a variety of already well-known arguments: a) print fiction cannot compete with the attractions of the social media and of audiovisual fiction/entertainment; b) literary fiction is, by definition, non-commercial; c) this a specific anglophone problem and in other languages literary fiction still thrives; d) the MAs in creative writing are having a (paradoxical) negative impact on literary quality by limiting individual creativity and innovation; e) literary fiction has done a good job of cultivating prose but is neglecting plot in excess and g) readers are no longer willing to make the effort to read literary fiction after being disappointed by too many over-hyped volumes. I could go through the whole alphabet…

I will add fuel to the fire by pointing out that not all professional writers should expect to make a living off their writing. Arundhati Roy, who published an excellent novel twenty years ago, The God of Small Things, and has only now published the second one, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, might be the kind of writer we need: someone who offers very few, strictly selected novels rather than a constant flow of mediocre writing aimed at keeping the pot boiling on the stove, and not at all contributing to the art of Literature. Why, indeed, should literary fiction be a profession, except for a handful of very high quality writers?

I’ll go even further to note that I myself, a Literature teacher, went into shock recently when reading the short story collection Hijas de un sueño (http://www.esdrujula.es/libro/hijas-de-un-sueno/) published by my dear friend Gerardo Rodríguez (also an English Literature teacher at the Universidad de Granada). My shock surfaced from realizing that I haven’t been reading great Literature produced in our own period for a very, very, very long time… if at all. Pretentious, yes indeed; great, no. Wisely combining the lessons learned from Katherine Mansfield with his own Andalusian cultural heritage, Gerardo has produced a slim volume which is worth 100 over-hyped, fumbling literary novels, of the kind that promises more than delivers. Why’s that? Because this is a book written in no hurry and with the only aim of accomplishing a personal goal, namely, the publication of a volume the author can be proud of. Is it ambitious? Of course it is, but not the kind of ambition that is now spoiling the literary game: the ambition leading to craving for meaningless awards, striving for a fleeting media presence, competing in the top sales charts with plenty of other bad books. The underside is, as I told Gerardo, that few will even notice that his beautiful literary book exists for in our topsy-turvy times literary excellence is simply not admired. An inconvenient truth that the Arts Council’s report, by the way, overlooks.

I think that what we, readers, are doing in the absence of fine prose (which is not the decorative prose they teach in creative writing schools) is to choose storytelling. This might explain the pleasure we get from 19th century fiction–which tried to mix both good prose and good plotting–and contemporary popular fiction. Unlike literary fiction, which, as I have noted, tends to neglect plot because of the Modernist prejudice against it, popular fiction is capable of combining quality plotting with quality writing. The kind of popular fiction we tend to hate fails, precisely at both ends: the prose and the plot (for an example, read Riley Sager’s appalling thriller Final Girls).

Compulsive readers, and I am certainly one, may be starving for new fine prose, of the kind that gives you an insight into human life, but this does not mean we are starving for good reading. If we don’t find it in the fiction of the past (I’m currently reading Margaret Oliphant’s awesome 1883 novel Hester with much enjoyment), then we find it outside the novel. And I mean in non-fiction (a lazy label if I ever have seen one…) and particularly in what is now often referred to as ‘microhistory’.

Wikipedia informs us that microhistory is “the intensive historical investigation of a well-defined smaller unit of research (most often a single event, the community of a village, or an individual)” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microhistory). The resulting print volumes are, then, a specific branch of non-fiction, mostly written by historians instead of, as it is often the case, journalists. The distinctions are, however, not that clear-cut possibly because few academics have bothered to pay attention to non-fiction and its generic taxonomy and we are constantly confused by the label. Non-fiction, by the way, including microhistory, tends to be narrative rather than essayistic which is why it is often chosen as an alternative to the novel by dissatisfied readers.

There is not (yet) a canon of the best microhistory but you may find an impressive list on GoodReads: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/1058.Microhistory_Social_Histories_of_Just_One_Thing. Number 9 on the day I’m writing (this may vary depending on the number of votes) is Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, simply the best book I have read this past 2017 (together with Hijas de un sueño). It is also very handy to explain the links (and differences) between fiction and non-fiction: Philbrick narrates the real-life story that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. Both did intensive research but whereas Melville chose to embellish the events by developing his own plotting and using his fine, insightful prose, Philbrick uses a scholarly, yet still entertaining approach, attempting to reconstruct past events.

And this is it: for us, readers who love learning from books, the combination of solid research, appealing narrative and elegant prose is unbeatable. Also, the variety of topics, another aspect that is giving microhistory an advantage over plain fiction. You will soon see that the GoodReads microhistory list mixes many heterogeneous works. I’ll take just the first 10 titles to make my point (consider how many you would like to read…):

1. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson
2. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
3. Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky
4. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
5. The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson
6 Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel
7. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
8. Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand
9. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
10. At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

What a marvellous list for a monographic course (or analysis in a collective volume…)!!! Or reading project for 2018…

It has taken since the 1980s much academic effort to convince university students and teachers that the world of fiction worth reading and researching extends far beyond the narrow confines of literary fiction, beginning with (poorly labelled) popular fiction. It is now the time, perhaps, to start considering the role that non-fiction is playing in the habits of contemporary readers to replace the ailing literary fiction, and its merits as good writing, in particular in microhistory. Can we really say that, for instance, Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit (or Unbroken) has less merit as a storytelling volume than any of the contemporary anglophone novels we read, teach and do research on? I should think not–quite the opposite, it is better than many which we value simply because they are marketed as literary fiction.

I realize that the microhistory in the GoodReads list has a common ingredient: the intention to popularize scholarly knowledge. These volumes are often popular science but also an application of its popularizing techniques to many other areas. I marvel at how although English ‘popularize’ and Spanish ‘divulgar’ appear to share a similar meaning (populus = the people; vulgus = the common people), yet ‘divulgar’ expresses much better the idea of making scholarly research available to a mass readership while still maintaining a serious didactic tone. I would not say that the didactic component is what is luring readers away from literary fiction and into microhistory but it is certainly a very strong point.

The function of Literature, to end, used to be providing an insight into human life coached in beautiful language (which, by the way, poetry does much better than novels…). What we’re seeing today, then, is that literary fiction is providing mainly forgettable prose and extremely limited insights into personal lives with scant projection onto the rest of the world. Microhistory (as a print genre expressing a trend in historiography) is placing individual experience against a much larger historical canvas, as the novel used to do in pre-Modernist times. It may not offer literary prose (though it could) but it is offering a more complete approach to human life than the minimalist, fragmented, individualistic approach of current literary fiction. This is why many, like yours truly, find so much pleasure in its pages.

Perhaps the Arts Council should look next into microhistory for, as we know, genres come and go, rise and fall, and perhaps the literary novel is beginning to outstay its welcome, at least as we know it today.

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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