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The slow death of the literary novel: the sales crisis afflicting fiction

The percentage of authors earning a full-time living solely from writing dropped from 40 per cent in 2005 to 11.5 per cent in 2013.

Of all the things currently described as being “in crisis” –  the NHS, the White House, Britain’s hedgehog population – literary fiction might not rank highly in terms of public alarm. But a dramatic report published by Arts Council England (ACE) in December has raised the spectre of the highbrow novelist as an endangered species – and started a combative debate about how, if at all, writers should be funded.

The study claims falling book prices, sales and advances mean that literary authors are struggling more than ever to make a living from their fiction. In today’s market, selling 3,000 copies of your novel is not unrespectable – but factor in the average hardback price of £10.12 and the retailer’s 50 per cent cut, and just £15,000 remains to share between publisher, agent and author. No wonder that the percentage of authors earning a full-time living solely from writing dropped from 40 per cent in 2005 to 11.5 per cent in 2013. To avoid novel-writing becoming a pursuit reserved for those with independent means, ACE suggests emergency intervention: direct grants for authors and better funding for independent publishers and other organisations.

Tim Lott scorned these proposals in the Guardian, arguing that “literary” authors must “write better books” – that is, books with strong stories. “My impression of literary fiction,” Lott wrote, citing Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, “is that it has lost the plot. Literally.” In 2013 McBride won the first Goldsmiths Prize, co-founded with the NS to reward authors taking the sorts of risks with form and language that Lott so objects to. The prize’s most recent winner, Nicola Barker, tells me over email that “what Tim probably doesn’t fully appreciate is how the creative milieu, as an organism, works”.

“Experimental novelists and artists provide the ideas that form a cultural plankton for bigger organisms to feast upon,” she continues. “Our ideas gradually filter through to the mainstream.” Barker, however, does not believe that literary fiction is “in crisis”. If anything, she argues, struggle is good for writers: “Working against the grain sharpens things…I refuse to accept the idea of art in terms of the market. Art isn’t capitalism.”

Books do still have monetary value – just about. On the phone from Oxford, Philip Pullman cites the analogy of the music business: “We’ve allowed ourselves to be tricked that music is free – that’s an extraordinary argument for exploitation on a grand scale.” The discounting of books, he says, is a “great evil” unleashed 20 years ago with the abolition of the Net Book Agreement and its fixed minimum prices. Pullman, president of the Society of Authors, also points out that the loss of libraries (more than 100 branches closed in 2017) is harming writers who in better days “would have sold 1,500, maybe 2,000 copies to libraries as a matter of course”.

It is the “midlist” authors – once supported by publishers despite modest sales – who are most vulnerable, especially when it comes to advances. Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the Society of Authors, tells me of a writer who had an advance of £60,000 for her last book and is being offered £6,000 for her new one – a not unrepresentative slump. The ACE report points out, though, that profits at major publishers are up. “Publishers are taking too much of a share,” says Solomon. “There is not enough investment in authors, or in diversity.” As she and others suggest, if future writers don’t see themselves reflected – in terms of class, ethnicity and so on – in books then our literary gene pool will become worryingly narrow.

How many of these problems can be solved by subsidy? Though not against the principle, those I spoke to seemed sceptical about the focus on “literary” writers and the idea of direct funding. “The picture is very complicated,” says Pullman, “and we need to look at the whole of it rather than just asking what are we going to do about poor writers who can’t get nominated for the Booker Prize”. Barker is “phlegmatic” about the status quo: “Most of us just live hand-to-mouth. We are no different from good potters or violin players or embroiderers.”

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief

Quiz recreates the atmosphere of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? studio. Credit: JOHAN PERSSON
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Quiz is a fast-paced, hi-tech retelling of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal

This tale of the “coughing major” is a nostalgic romp through the rise of reality television.

As the interval began at James Graham’s new play, Quiz, I turned to my companion and said: “Wow, this is like telly – in a theatre.” (For clarity, this is a compliment.) This fast-paced, hi-tech production tells the story of the “coughing major” Charles Ingram, who won the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and then had it taken away again after being accused of cheating.

It provides a nostalgic romp through past ITV shows and the rise of reality television, involves the only audience participation not to make me cringe straight through my seat and into the row behind, and, y’know, also asks whether our memories are so fallible that they are essentially useless, undermining the very nature of truth itself. There’s also a cracking impression of Chris Tarrant.

James Graham is on a roll: last year, the Almeida’s production of his new drama Ink transferred to the West End to the Duke of York, while the theatre next door hosted his original comedy Labour of Love.

The latter, but not the former, won an Olivier Award on 8 April, which is nothing short of a travesty. Labour of Love was a perfectly serviceable romcom ported to a constituency office, but its lighter elements somehow jarred with its ambition to Say Something About The Left. In Ink, on the other hand, the comedy bolstered the play’s moral message rather than undermined it. The play showed how the fun and excitement of the early days of the Sun swelled and distorted until the cheeky smile became a rictus grin; the second half then plunged us into darkness with a grisly murder and the collection of a Faustian bargain.

In Quiz, the comedy performs the same function as it did in Ink: it lulls and seduces the audience, leading them invisibly down a particular path, so they can then be shown how easily they were influenced. The first half is styled as “the case for the prosecution”. We hear that Ingram’s wife Diana and her brother had already appeared on the show, having devised a way to beat the supposedly random selection process. Mrs Ingram had phoned another contestant, college lecturer Tecwen Whittock, whom she vaguely knew, the night before her husband’s second appearance; he was then recorded coughing suspiciously the next day whenever the right multiple choice answer was read out. Hearing all that meant that when we were asked to vote at the interval – using keypads attached to the seats – on Major Ingram’s guilt, the audience delivered an unambiguous verdict: send him down.

Then we discovered that there was another side to the story. Diana Ingram knew Whittock through her brother, so the call could have been innocent; in any case, he claimed to have a dust allergy that made him cough almost uncontrollably. (It would have been like setting up a fiendish conspiracy based around blinking with someone who finds it hard to tolerate contact lenses.)

The hints of disquiet about the manipulative qualities of television present in the first half then bloomed fully with the revelation that the “cough tape” was supplied to the court by the TV company Celador – which gained a million pounds by not paying out the prize, remember. It had been heavily edited, with numerous other “irrelevant” coughs removed. Voting again at the end, a majority would have let Major Ingram walk free. (In real life, the jury were not so swayed; Charles and Diana Ingram and Tecwen Whittock were all found guilty.)

This is one of those productions where everything is just so. The ensemble cast switched neatly between roles; the set design was modern (recreating the bear pit of the Millionaire studio, itself meant to evoke a colosseum); the staging was fluid and surprisingly experimental; and director Daniel Evans extracted larger-than-life comedy performances that teetered on the right side of mugging. The courtroom framing also allowed for quick, shameless exposition dumps. Even better, the flashes of deeper meaning – a reference to the Iraq War’s truth-denying Comical Ali, or the Apprentice-driven presidency of Donald Trump, reality TV’s worst spin-off series – never felt forced.

Evans is artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, where this play had a short run last year; he and Graham have tightened and quickened it since then. Like Network at the National Theatre, it forces the audience to think about their own reaction to the play even as they’re watching it – just as the unlikely innovation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was to let the contestants see the questions before deciding to play, tormenting them with doubt. As Graham pointed out in an interview, we should always mistrust ourselves: the case is known as the “coughing major” scandal, when the major wasn’t even the one doing the coughing.

Quiz runs until 16 June. quiztheplay.com

Quiz
Noël Coward Theatre, London W1

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge