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:
- Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling
- 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
- The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century by Thomas L. Friedman
- Freakonomics : A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
- Blink : The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
- My Life by Bill Clinton
- Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry by John E. O'Neill and Jerome R. Corsi
- Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
- The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
- The South Beach Diet by Arthur Agatston, M.D.
- The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
- Stupid White Men ...and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation! by Michael Moore
- The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus
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.
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.