Nurturing the literary landscape

Literary fiction has lost status over the past quarter century, becoming marginal to our wider culture, argues New Statesman editor Jason Cowley in forthright terms in an interview in this week’s issue, reigniting the debate kicked off by Arts Council England’s report last December (Literature in the 21st Century) on what ACE reckoned were serious threats to literary fiction in the current climate.

Cowley may sound a touch nostalgic in his lament for the glamorous publishers of yesteryear, but many will think he has a point—particularly given that shrinking review space and the loss of dedicated literary editors has diminished the public profile of literary work over the past few years. This has made it a tougher arena than ever to establish new names and find a readership for experimental work, a task which was surely never easy anyway.

In the literary space in particular, independent publishers have proved themselves to have an immensely important role, with their regular presence on the big prize shortlists—and not infrequently on the winner’s rostrum itself— testifying to the achievements to be gained from their ability to take risks on unknowns, or on the kind of experimental work that larger publishers seem more unwilling to take on.

Almost like an R&D wing (if reluctantly so) to the wider industry, it is from small independents that stellar names like Eimear McBride, Andrew Michael Hurley, Marlon James and many more have emerged.

In this week’s issue, independents describe some of the challenges they face, both in our Lead Story and in an account of a round-table discussion held at the Bradford Literature Festival last month. They describe the support and kinship they get from indie bookshops, but how they struggle sometimes to get their books into the chains; and they highlight, in both pieces, the “elephant in the room”—a lack of openness to regional diversity in the industry, which adds for many a quite unnecessary hurdle. The trade is starting to address that bias, and the work must continue.

A flourishing market

Also key to a flourishing literary market—and to all publishing—is full and fair remuneration for authors.

The issue of author pay—recently highlighted in an extract from a forthcoming ALCS survey—is one that is set to remain firmly on the agenda, with submissions now in to the All Party Parliamentary Writers Group inquiry and a report due in December.

In a column for this issue, the Publishers Association chief Stephen Lotinga argues that it is crucial for the industry and its representative bodies to have robust data in which to ground this very important discussion—even when that means, as in this case, that the PA must also hold its hands up to a statistical error of its own. Authors and publishers indeed both need this clarity.