Friday, December 30, 2005

BOOKS: So Long, Fiction. We Hardly Knew Ye.

Is fiction dead? And if so, where should I send flowers?
Literary media, like the make-or-break-an-author’s-reputation New York Times Book Review, have cut back on reviews of novels in favour of non-fiction coverage. Globally, fiction sales are down. Publishers and agents returning from the Frankfurt Book Fair reported that Canadian fiction, despite its stellar international reputation, wasn’t generating the heat it used to. Even J.K. Rowling was in a slump, with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth book in her wizard series, not flying off the shelves as quickly as in the past.
After reading this, I went to Amazon (I know, I know, very scientific) and looked at their bestsellers for the past few years. Here they are:

  1. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
  2. YOU: The Owner's Manual : An Insider's Guide to the Body that Will Make You Healthier and Younger by Michael F. Roizen and Mehmet Oz
  3. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by Thomas L. Friedman
  4. Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
  5. Blink : The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
  1. My Life by Bill Clinton
  2. Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry by John E. O'Neill and Jerome R. Corsi
  3. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss
  1. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
  2. The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
  3. The South Beach Diet by Arthur Agatston, M.D.
  1. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
  2. Stupid White Men ...and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation! by Michael Moore
  3. The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
Well, yup, I guess based on these titles, it looks like non-fiction is flying off the shelves at an increasing rate.

But can I tell you my theory, based on my incredibly scientific random sampling (I'm all about the science today, have you noticed?) of the three people I know who claim to read non-fiction almost exclusively? I bet two-thirds of the people who bought these books never finished them... if they even started them. (Not you, of course. You're the exception.) A LOT of these titles have "gift book for dad" and "unread coffee table fodder" written all over them. And I'll go even further and extrapolate that two-thirds of ALL non-fiction titles don't get finished.

So there.

How's that for taking a bold yet completely tenuous stance?

I guess if we're measuring a book's "success" based on "sales" and all that, then non-fiction is the winner. But I think that speculating about fiction's demise based on bestseller lists and new releases is taking too narrow a view. Most of the fiction lovers I know read widely across genres and time periods. They tend to rely on libraries and used bookstores for their fix. They're also ardent re-readers. All of these factors make tracking their reading habits nigh impossible.

It's understandable that publishers have to respond to market forces to stay in business; however, publishers also need to have a decent backlist of time-honoured strong sellers to support the risks they take with their new frontlisted books. And I think it's reasonable to speculate that, since non-fiction tends to be more faddish than fiction, it's poorer backlist fodder. (Do you think anyone's going to be reading
Freakonomics in ten years? Or The South Beach Diet? And much as I loved the premise, I didn't even get to the halfway point of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Is anyone still talking about it? Though, to argue against myself for a second, hopefully The Nanny Diaries isn't going to become a time-honoured classic, either.)

I hope that publishers agree with this reasoning and continue to publish and support the novelists and short-story writers who may, ostensibly, be their bread and butter.

Speaking of bread and butter, want to know the bestselling books of all time? The Bible, as everyone knows, tops the list. But number two: Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls. Not surprising, actually. I have a copy of Valley of the Dolls, as well as, until recently, five bibles. They just seem to accumulate of their own accord, like safety pins and Catholics.

Summary: Fiction may be dead, but you can't go wrong getting into the bible biz.


Anonymous said...

I'm a non-fiction person also. Until now, I thought that made me a weirdo.

Anonymous said...

i love non-fiction, but you're right, i finish more fiction than non-fiction. and you're kidding, Valley of the Dolls is #2? no way! i figured it would be The Godfather, what with the Catholics and all. hee.

Anonymous said...

Long-time lurker coming out of the woodwork:

Not surprised by these sales. How many people throw away money every other week on the latest diet fad book? This is representative of our quick-fix culture.

It's ironic you bring this up now. I was just discussing fiction versus non-fiction with my mother, who feels reading fiction is "A waste of time." I don't know how people can feel that way...i've been more moved by many of the fiction novels i've read than through any other type of media. It's true, however, that I'll remember the great fiction i've read much longer than any of the non-fiction I've read.

Anonymous said...

Here is a fact that I can't back up, but am sure I read somewhere, older people tend to read more non-fiction than fiction. Considering our aging population, is the surge in non-fiction so unexpected?

landismom said...

Yeah, I think the gist of your argument is very right on. Case in point from my own life is the enormous number of (mostly useless) parenting books that I own. Sometimes, books can't fix the thing that needs fixing;).

Joanne said...

I think non-fiction has become more entertaining, like fiction. The more like fiction it is, the more successful non-fiction is, in my oh-so-scientific opinion. And as a curious Catholic, how do other people accumulate?

Jenn said...

I work in a small independent book store. We carry new books - bestsellers, plus lots of random/beautiful art and architecture books - as well as lots and lots of used fiction. New non-fiction is by far the biggest seller we have. Definitely our bread and butter, no matter how much we push the eclectic used philosophy books, Graham Greene, Haruki Murakami, poets, playwrights, etc (we're snobbish). Can't keep The World is Flat or Freakonomics in stock. I don't know if that means fiction is dead, but it's not what people are buying (which is just what your Amazon survey told you, as well). Someone just yesterday asked me "What's your biggest fiction seller lately? What's really flying off the shelves?" and I had to stop and think hard. I couldn't come up with any new, hot fiction titles for almost a minute. Then all I could pull out of my hat was the new James Patterson or P.D. James.

Hmm. I just got sad.

ari said...

Blink was fabulous, so I recommend you read it, as with the Lovely Bones. Fantastic stuff. But, only my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I read a ton of fiction, buy I don't buy a ton of fiction. I save my purchases for non-fiction stuff that I find I'll reference again and again. I get my fiction from the library and if I feel I'll read it again, maybe I'll buy it. But that may just be me...

Quillhill said...

You are right on about the shelf-life of much current bestseller non-fiction. The problem with fiction seems to be the lack of good product. So much modern fiction is hollow, that readers craving more depth are forced either into the library where they can find a happily well-read copy of Les Miserables, or into creative non-fiction.