The crisis at the heart of literary fiction

The Costa Book Awards shortlists were announced Tuesday evening. Of the four works shortlisted for the Novel of the Year award, one is about climate change, one is about war and migration, and one is about racial injustice (and all four are written by women). The first novel also dominates the novel category: Race, Female Identity, and Apocalypse Anxiety (and three of the four were written by women). If one of the functions of fiction is the opposite of the world we live in, it is not surprising to see so many novels actively engaged in the major issues of our day.

However, Costa’s eagerness to reward the social inclusion in his novels makes me a little uncomfortable. There are certainly some great novels on both shortlists: AK Blackmore’s first appearance, The Manningtree Witches, is a fine recreation of the Essex witch trials in the seventeenth century. But I would argue that quite a few others were chosen because of the piety of their subject rather than their storytelling skills. And while I can only applaud the rise of female literary voices reflected in the shortlists (75 percent of general and literary fiction novels sold in 2020 were by women), I also sympathize with Elizabeth Strout when I wondered in a recent interview if she The fact that women now control the business has “made it very narrow”.

Leading literary agent Claire Alexander agrees that “most of the tastemakers in publishing are now young women,” who, before creating her own agency, worked in publishing for 20 years. (In fact, women now make up 78 percent of editorial jobs in publishing.) “And they’ll look for things that matter to them and reflect their lifestyle. But that means publishing doesn’t reflect the world like a young white man might find, say. There aren’t, for example. Example, a novel equivalent to Martin Amis’s “Rachel Papers” now published.

One may or may not mourn the diminishing importance of Ames in today’s literary scene. The larger issue is an industry that feels increasingly preoccupied with appealing to the social sensibilities of a narrow group of readers rather than reflecting a plurality of experiences. “I see a lot of hype around a lot of mediocre novels simply because they are about identity politics,” says a 40-year-old editor at a leading publishing company, who does not wish to be named. “It is very difficult to find an attraction for a book that is not by a well-known author that will connect with certain very loud groups on Twitter unless it is about a social issue with a hot topic.” A friend of his recently failed to find a publisher last year for his first book. “Their agent said it’s really hard because you don’t write something edgy or about race, you just write about the middle-class experience.”

Alexander agrees that there is a fair amount of dutiful supervision. “It is now easier in a publishing house to buy a book for a woman, and it is better to buy a woman from a diverse background,” she says. “There’s some great writing in that space but there’s also some ticking in the box, which makes it more difficult. Some of this is a necessary correction, by which I mean the necessity of diversity is important, but it’s not the only thing.”


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