• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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No I Would Not Give You False Hope on This Strange and Mournful Day

A lot of painful conversations lately about literary fiction and its demise.

 Was it ever any different? 

When I was an assistant at Simon and Schuster 25 years ago, there was exactly one literary fiction editor. And his position was rumored to be precarious as a result of focusing exclusively on the literary stuff. (In fact, he was let go a year later.) Of course,  this was especially true at a house like S&S where monster political and celebrity books ruled. I can still recall an anxious conversation between a senior editor and a publicist because they couldn’t remember if Jackie Collins preferred white roses or red. 

I understood at that tender age that to focus entirely on fiction was to jeopardize  my hope of becoming an editor.  It’s a tough racket: writing, publishing, and selling books. Or as the great sub-rights director of S&S once explained when I couldn’t fathom the math of a profit and loss statement, “Toots,” she said,  “It’s a nickel and dime business.”

Are things worse now? Sure. Internet, Kindle, My Face, a million more distractions. The economy, unemployment, the dow jones. Might just be the perfect storm ready to sink the great publishing ship Titanic. What does this mean to any committed writer in a publishing climate that resembles the parlor game musical chairs? Nothing.  I would not give you false hope,  but we need you more than ever.

20 Responses

  1. As usual I’m looking for love in all the wrong places.

  2. The infrastructure of literature has always been slow to change in response to changing conditions. The population is still growing, the literate population is still growing. But not so many people are buying new books tagged literary fiction? I think a gap grew between writers of ‘literature’ and readers. Gradually over the last fifty years or so, this idea sprang up that ‘literary’ writing didn’t have the same responsibility to respect the reader that other forms of writing had. Self-indulgence crept in. A kind of educational and class gap sprang up between editors and writers (who understood what ‘quality in literature’ was because of their particular educations) and readers who wanted to enjoy the experience of reading. In fact, if one was to attempt to define ‘literary’ fiction…and so on.

  3. A dung-filled sock?
    Oh, dear.

  4. I wrote a post with a theory of why (literary?) fiction doesn’t sell like nonfiction apparently does. The short version of my theory: nonfiction has a shorter shelf life.

  5. Why all this competition between the fictional and the so-called non-fictional genres. They’re closer cousins than people like to think, besides, most things boil down to the quality of the writing and the luck or otherwise of the person who manages to get their voice heard in this huge sea of readers.
    Readers are like writers, they too operate at different levels. The quality of the reader will influence the degree to which a writer’s voice is heard, whether fiction or non-fiction. Though ’tis true, it seems people want to believe that everything is true these days, even while they must know there is no such thing as absolute truth and much of what is being directed at them is false anyway.

  6. In 1995 Arthur Krystal wrote an essay for Harper’s Magazine called “Closing the Books: A Devoted Reader Arrives at The End of the Story” about his disenchantment with the act of reading fiction. It had nothing to do with the quality of current fiction; it had more to do with the fact that fiction had become irrelevant to him, in his middle age. Having devoured the great books as a young man, Krystal discovered that in his 50s, whatever “wisdom” he’d sought from his favorite writers was no longer news: “At some point we’ve all been down the same road”. This sense of having out-grown the need for fiction not only explains my own complete lack of interest in reading literary fiction (I’m 53 and after reading “Atonement” I decided that I’d rather get hit with a dung-filled sock than have to plow through crappy literary fiction ever again), it explains why the stuff doesn’t sell these days. Book buyers are aging, and they’ve already read enough coming-of-age stories to last a lifetime…Book buyers are also mostly female and why should they want to read stories that are saturated with Rothian, Bellow-esque, Joyce-like, DeLillo’d, or Franzen-ish angst? Like we don’t already put up with enough of that in real life?

    So it comes as no surprise to me that fiction doesn’t sell, and I say Good Riddance. As long as Neil deGrasse Tyson keeps writing books, I’ll be a happy reader.

  7. Wow, Vivian, I’m older than you and I wouldn’t dismiss all fiction so effortlessly. I suspect ‘good’ (whatever that means) fiction writers are trying to do something that might reach deeper levels than is possible when one sticks to the so-called facts of experience. Serious fiction writers talk about their efforts at getting at ’emotional truth’ and that notion resonates with me.
    I loved ‘Atonement’ and I’ve not read Tyson so I can’t judge his writing but I suspect Tyson and McEwan are trying at different levels of experience. Now I find myself wanting to defend them both, fiction writers and those who struggle with non-fiction. I’ve gone full circle on my original question. I suspect the goals of fiction writing and of non-fiction writing are different. What do you think, Betsy?

  8. Oh, right, I forgot: fiction writers are “deep”, and real life is so superficial, being simply fact-based, lacking all that important emotional truth and all. And we all know that there’s only one way to tell the truth, right? Neil deGrasse Tyson is only an astrophysicist — so yeah, his writing can’t have the wrought-up je ne sais quoi of a REAL (MFA) writer. Silly me.

  9. Actually [note I didn’t say “fictionally”), I think this whole distinction/competition between fiction and non-fiction is made up, an invention, a “fiction.” It’s all the same.

    Fiction and non-fiction both have “fiction” in them (literally) and are simply varying degrees of fiction. Whether or not it “really happened,” it becomes fiction the moment we put it into language.

    On the other hand, there’s no such thing as pure fiction; all fiction has real experience in it.

    I love good fiction and good non-fiction. (I define good as anything that appeals to me for whatever obscure reason.)

    This whole “debate” reminds me of a great quote from the OXFORD COMPANION TO THE BIBLE about the writers of the Hebrew Bible:

    “They express an understanding of God, of the world, and of humanity, which did not yet make distinctions between knowledge and belief, between science, philosophy, history, and religion… The appropriate question to ask of this material is not, ‘Did it really happen that way?’ but ‘Is it our world that is being portrayed? Is this description of human beings accurate?'”

    Regardless of what we call it—fiction, non-fiction, gospel truth, psychological truth, scripture, science, philosophy, history, religion—it’s all language doing what language does. [God! Am I profound or what?]

    I love this discussion. I get all tangled up in it in my blog on the About This Blog and Me page. [Shameless blog plug, I know, but I think it says what I’m trying to say here, and it’s a combination of fiction and non-fiction].

  10. P.S. I forgot to mention that the very first comment I ever received as a blogger was from someone who thought the fiction of my blog was fact. Further evidence of the fact (or fiction?) that once we put it into words, it’s anybody’s guess…

  11. According to the late philosopher E.F. Schumacher, there are two kinds of problems–divergent and convergent.

    Convergent problems when solved (what’s the best self-propelled two wheel vehicle?) offer concrete stuff—salable product.

    Divergent problems refuse single solution (what is love, responsibility, free will, freedom?) and test our ability to live with ambiguity.

    Imaginative writing, whether fiction or non, encourages us to tolerate, sometimes for lifetimes, everything we simply cannot solve.

  12. Works for me, chris J rice. And then there’s that convergent problem for Toots: “Who’s spending nickels and dimes on what?” And then again, having just returned from packing books in boxes to prepare for a move, I’m guessing those of us who care may be in life rafts soon when the Titanic disappears like the proverbial “dung-filled sock” done in by blogs and twitters and such…

  13. I suspect when an agent sends out a quality piece of fiction, it always helps to have specific editors in mind; as in, “That literary diva at HarperPenguinRandom & Schuster really, really likes dark Southern gothic, she’ll go apeshit for this one.” Or, “that nerdy guy at St. Harcourt & Giroux digs all those po-mo Franzen wannabes, so this could work for him, big time.” Otherwise, the fiction roulette game becomes an exercise in futility.

    Luck and taste and an editor’s track record all play roles in the alchemy of pairing writer to house, yes?

  14. Wow. Veering away from such highly intellectual discourse, this is my two cents:

    If publishing is indeed going down the digital route, I can understand why literary fiction may find itself an endangered genre of publishing. It just isn’t suited for the digital stream.

    To me, the act of reading literary fiction is deeply rooted in specific, personal rituals: maybe you sit on one side of the couch, or maybe you can only read on the train, or at lunch or turn pages if only accompanied with a fresh cup of brewed coffee. Maybe these rituals prepare us for what’s ahead – the tuning out, the separation from reality for a little while.

    The digital world isn’t meant for that. Everything about the digital era screams integration. It’s all about being connected – with the here, the now and the urgent.

    We turn to the “Internets” as an extension of real life. MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, PerezHilton all amuse me in a ‘non-fictionesque’ (yes, new word!) manner. Trust me, I find myself often ‘enlightened’ by my friends’ Facebook updates and enjoy the whine-y blog entries of my friends. It’s damn entertaining stuff, even if much of it is in a”see ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya” way.

    So non-fiction material, I imagine, is meaningful and malleable enough for this digital world that we’re now in.

    As for Literary Fiction, eh. Not too sure. What I do know is that I like it served old school: Let me have my coffee, my favorite lamp and my dog-eared pages – and disconnect for awhile.

    • Well put. (I was getting confused, too — thank you for keeping to the topic.) Betsy brought up the fact that literary ficton doesn’t sell these days and, as regretful as that reality is to people who love the form, the topic is not Fiction v. Non-Fiction, it’s Why People Don’t Buy Literary Fiction.

      There’s still a market for good, pop fiction — people crave stories just as much as they ever did. So there must be something especially off-putting to book buyers these days about Literary Fiction.

      With such easy access to one another, through all the means you mentioned, and with much less cultural shame about telling our life experiences, people (book buyers and non-book buyers alike) now have almost unlimited access to real stories. This has changed everything about the reading experience in ways I don’t want to get into for now. For now:

      The current book market simply reflects that those real / true stories are what people want (and maybe wanted all along).

      Non Fiction’s triumph over Literary Fiction reflects the simple truth that we are (and always have been) very, very curious about one another; and literary fiction isn’t satisfying that curiosity. Readers today have plenty of alternatives not available to previous generations of readers, and they are going to those alternative in droves — because it turns out that readers are more interested in reading about the choices a real person makes in a real world, in how a real person (similar to us, or as foreign as can be) is getting through life, than they are in reading how some construct of a person is resolving some literary plot device. Given this, and the sophistication level of the average reader re: his/her awareness of and ability to get any kind of story out there on the interwebs, the idea of an “emotional truth” provided only by literary fiction is pretentious and patronizing. And not to mention, quaint.

  15. I find the digital world even more of a fiction than that of literature. Blogs like this one for instance which I love to participate in especially when we get a conversation going are thrilling in many senses because to me they are like fiction. We can escape into other worlds.

    I am reminded of the multiple ways in which we interpret one another’s meanings. I don’t know whether you meant it, Vivian but i almost gasped at your response to my comment about eight posts ago. I hadn’t meant to offend but I sensed you experienced my comment as a put down, and then I felt put down, but somehow it all happens out there in the blogsphere, in the and of fiction that I know is also real. To me it’s a great comfort this merging of fiction and non-fiction when it comes to the written word. no need to take things too literally.

  16. I have to say that I find the illustration for this post just hilarious. Although that old Goya painting of Saturn Eating His Children would work, too.

  17. Vivian – You should try reading some Literary Fiction. It might help. Really. 🙂

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