Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Is fiction dead?

Last night out with my writerly friends Catherine, David and Jonathan, and we debated long and hard, in a beery way, over whether fiction is dead. I think we all saw the McCrum post on the Guardian books blog (I got a comment in there!), and I also had this article by Ted Genoways (editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, the kind of revered and well-established literary journal I've never heard of), article helpfully titled "The Death of Fiction", in mind.

It seems to be the general consensus that "traditional" avenues for short fiction are withering... or are they? As a lot of commenters noted in the Genoways piece, while the old war horses are struggling to make the next hurdle, young, coltish independent mags racing ahead and vaulting the new obstacles with aplomb.

I think magazines tend to become institutionalised over time. They develop a style and approach, and a stable of regular contributors which gradually freezes out new talent and - ultimately - new readers. I don't think there's a solution to his, as I don't think it's a problem. There's no reason that a magazine should last forever: eventually, they all die - just like people!

I think it's true that compared to the nineties, the noughts were pretty harsh on traditional print small press mags. I remember when you could go into Forbidden Planet (on New Oxford Street, back then) and they had a rack of cheaply printed and photo-statted mags; there were also mail order brochures and distributors like Back Brain Recluse. By the time I arrived in the UK, the boom was well and truly busting. I sold a couple of stories to these mags in the mid nineties, but they both dried up before publishing them - that seemed to be the tenor of the times.

On the plus side, though, the internet has led to an explosion of online venues. A few years ago I made a point of reading online fictions very deliberately for a few months, in between the books I read. I read stories from Strange Horizons, Futurismic, Abyss & Apex, Clarkes World, Flurb and a bunch of others I can't remember now. I'd say a solid one-third of those stories was pretty darn good, a similar ratio to what I ever found in the major print mags when I read them in the eighties and nineties.

Jonathan told me that there are a lot of very vigorous independent literary publishers, too., and in fact had a an example in his bag. He'd been making his way through it and said it was really good. A similar point about indie publishers is amde several times in the comments to the Genoways piece.

So, I don't think venues are drying up, but older ones are dying a (probably) natural death and new things are springing up from new, unexpected sources. It raises a question as to universities will be able to support original fiction through prestigious journals in the future - maybe not, as the tertiary education sector seems to be going through a bit of a change, too.

This is good news for writers, but how about readers? Jonathan McCalmont (a different Jonathan, NB) has made the point that short SF seems to be published entirely for the benefit of other writers. I certainly share his suspicion that there are more writers than readers out there, particularly for the online zines. However, I think the online venues are a training ground and source of content for a growing market in original anthologies from independent publishers. These have a much wider audience, I suspect, especially those that can boast a contribution from a big-name novellist.

While I think there's still a sustainable interest in short fiction, it is self-evidently true that the appetite for short fiction has declined dramatically in the time scale of fifty years considered by Robert McCrum. Last night we all agreed that people were reading more than ever, but increasingly less fiction, and not just short fiction but all fiction.

Mobile phones and related items are one of the big reasons why: suddenly, there's a whole NEW way to waste time on the long commute. We've come a long way since Snake, and iPods, iPhones, PSPs and Nintendo DS's are everywhere on the DLR when I catch it every morning. Even the Metro is shifting fewer copies than it did a couple of year's back, to my uneducated eye!

In addition to this, there are message boards, FaceBoook, Twitter, blogs, aggregator sites like Arts & Letters Daily and Boing Boing plus the Guardian and the BBC. Between all that, there doesn't seem a lot of time left in the day to settle down with a good book. (I suppose this blog is part of the problem, but in the end it's a choice to either go with the flow or be left high and dry, so I choose the former!)

I hope that ereaders and multi-media media devices might, ultimately, offer hope to fiction writers. Cartherine mentioned that she doesn't listen to music on her iPod but to book review podcasts, and I suspect that podcasts and audio-books (in whatever format) have a big future. On my last long haul flight I listened to Frankenstein on audio book, somethihng I'd always intended to read, but probably never would have had it not been on the entertainment options.

Hm, I might have just talked myself into buying an iPod, but then the daily commute is the major componenet of my reading day, and I can't imagine spending the time doing anything else.

So, anyway, I guess what I'm saying is that I don't think fiction's dead, but the distribution channels and formats might be changing. I guess there's be a lot of work for voice-over artists... maybe I should look into a change of career?

Apologies for using the word "blogosphere" earlier, by the way. It would appear my assimilation is complete.

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