The crisis at the heart of literary fiction

·7 min read
Falling foul of the Twitterati: (from left) Martin Amis, Jeanine Cummins, Sally Rooney, Sebastian Faulks and Kate Clanchy - Getty/AFP/New York Times
Falling foul of the Twitterati: (from left) Martin Amis, Jeanine Cummins, Sally Rooney, Sebastian Faulks and Kate Clanchy - Getty/AFP/New York Times

On Tuesday evening the shortlists for the Costa Book Awards were announced. 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 category is also dominated by issue-led fiction: race, female identity, end-of-the-world anxiety (and three of the four are written by women). If one job of fiction is to reflect the world in which we live, it’s not surprising to see so many novels actively engaged in the big issues of our day.

Yet the eagerness of the Costa to reward social engagement in its novelists makes me a bit uneasy. Granted, there are some terrific novels on both shortlists: AK Blackmore’s debut, The Manningtree Witches, is a magnificent recreation of the 17th-century Essex witch trials. But I’d argue a good few others have been selected because of the piety of their subject matter rather than for their consummate storytelling skills. And while I can’t help but applaud the ascendancy of female literary voices that the shortlists reflect (75 per cent of general and literary fiction novels sold in 2020 were by women) I also have sympathy with Elizabeth Strout when she wondered in a recent interview if the fact women now dominate the business “made it too narrow”.

“Most of the tastemakers in publishing are now young women,” agrees the leading literary agent Clare Alexander who, prior to setting up her own agency, had worked in publishing for 20 years. (In fact, women now make up 78 per cent of editorial jobs in publishing.) “And they will look for the things that interest them and reflect their lifestyle. But it means publishing isn’t reflecting back the world as, say, a young white man might find it. There is, for example, no equivalent novel to Martin Amis’s Rachel Papers being published now.”

One can mourn or not the diminished importance of Amis in today’s literary scene. The larger issue is an industry that feels increasingly preoccupied with appealing to the social sensitivities of a narrow group of readers than in reflecting a plurality of experience. “I see a lot of buzz around a lot of mediocre novels simply because they are about identity politics,” says a fortysomething editor at a leading publishing company who doesn’t want to be named. “It is quite hard to find a hook for a book that isn’t by a well-established author that will connect with certain groups who are very vocal on Twitter unless it’s on one of the hot-topic social issues.” A friend of his recently failed to find a publisher last year for their first book. “Their agent said it’s really hard because you are not writing something edgy or about race, you are just writing about a middle-class experience.”

Alexander agrees that there is a fair amount of dutiful curating going. “It’s easier at a publishing house now to buy a book by a woman, and ideally a woman from a diverse background,” she says. “There is some wonderful writing in this space but there is also some box ticking, so that makes it harder. Some of this is a necessary corrective, by which I mean the necessity for diversity is important, but it isn’t the only thing.”

American Dirt, the third novel by Jeanine Cummins - Flatiron Books
American Dirt, the third novel by Jeanine Cummins - Flatiron Books

Publishing is, by definition, the gatekeeper of the sorts of stories that are written and read. But that also places it at the sharp end of the culture wars. The question of cultural authenticity, of who has the right to tell which story, is now threatening to disfigure an art form whose great strength has always been its ability to reveal the world from inside someone else’s head. Sebastian Faulks recently declared he would no longer describe female characters after being criticised by a reader for doing so in one of his books.

Last year, the white American author Jeanine Cummins had her book tour cancelled for her novel American Dirt after she was accused of writing from the perspective of a Mexican immigrant. Meanwhile, the rise of auto fiction (autobiography masquerading as fiction) has coincided with a growing wariness, even confusion, over the right of a novelist to imagine their way into being someone else. “This idea that people can only write about certain types of individuals because they happen to be proximate to these individuals – that is a death knell to literature and literature of the imagination,” says Philip Gwyn Jones, publisher of Picador.

Yet given the ease these days of offending the social media mobs, it’s no surprise more authors are now turning to sensitivity readers, who vet a manuscript in advance to ensure it contains nothing that could be considered culturally inappropriate to minority groups. No one wants needless upset, but the rise of the sensitivity reader has led to fears that literature is in danger of becoming so ideologically sanitised, it ceases to be literature at all. Alexander says that a practice now firmly entrenched in America is becoming the norm here. “For the first time, a publisher recently asked one of my authors, contractually, to pay half the cost of a sensitivity reader,” she says. “Which we refused, but I find the idea of sensitivity reads becoming contractually embedded terrifying.”

Gwyn Jones, who published Kate Clanchy’s memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, which was widely accused on Twitter of using racist language, is wary of being alarmist. “Sensitivity readers needn’t be a form of moral or imaginative policing, as long as author and editor maintain editorial control,” he says. “They are simply there to inform the writer of another world view.”

Sebastian Faulks at the Cliveden Literary Festival - Jamie Lorriman
Sebastian Faulks at the Cliveden Literary Festival - Jamie Lorriman

Yet he also agrees there now exists an existential threat to the once inalienable right of an author to express his or her point of view. “If I have regrets about our conduct during the Clanchy affair, it’s that we weren’t clear enough in our support for the author and her rights, as well as our condemnation of any trolling, abuse and misinterpretations that happened online. Trying to take the heat and the poison out of those sorts of exchanges on social media, where there is no room for nuance, is a thankless task. The publishing industry has to grasp that nettle and see if it can’t do better to make that a less dangerous space for readers and writers alike.”

He thinks older publishers can do more to guide their younger colleagues. “I do worry about some of the younger generation needing to believe that they must politically or morally subscribe to every book they are involved with in the way they do to an opinion on Twitter. That generation has a highly admirably ethical gauge but at its most extreme form, it can be limiting and even totalitarian. That’s to be resisted.”

Publishing, of course, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. “We are in tribal times,” says Alexander. “The internet, and social media, makes us more tribal. We look to find the opinions we share and then our opinions become stronger because all you encounter is the same opinion.”

Yet unlike other art forms such as theatre, which is beholden to its box office, publishing is hypothetically able to churn out mediocre books about identity politics until, in a worst-case scenario, storytelling in a traditional sense ceases to exist. But no one I spoke to, and no reader I know, wants to get to a point where we have become too frightened of the subjective imagination. Of novels that dare to tell transporting stories rather than lecture readers about climate change. Of novels written by people to whose gender, race, sexual or social identity we can’t personally relate. “It would lead to the deadening of everything,” says Gwyn Jones. “We’d end up only reading books written by ourselves.”

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