Literary fiction

A couple of weeks ago, I was quite

rude about those who take their literature extremely seriously. Today, in

order to redress the balance a little, I’d like to respond to the opposite tendency:

the idea, as Michael Blowhard puts

it, that literary writing is "no longer something special and above,

but a niche market instead."

Well, in terms of numbers of books sold, one could probably say that ’twas

ever thus. Genre fiction, be it sci-fi, horror, romance or mystery, has always

sold more in aggregate than difficult, literary works. But Michael wasn’t talking

about sales figures, he was saying "that, in the larger scheme of things,

lit just doesn’t matter that much, that it’s just a specialist taste and activity."

Michael is particularly

rude about his two bêtes noir, Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison. He

doesn’t like them one bit, and, what’s more, he claims that his friends in the

publishing industry don’t like them either. It’s all some kind of conspiracy,

it would seem: the powerful few, lunching at the restaurant whose name Michael

borrowed for his nom de web, constituting a cabal who pump up the likes

of Rushdie and Morrison in order to perpetuate a literary heritage of their

very own. Or something.

It’s pointless trying to get into an argument about quality here: I could shout

very loudly about how wonderful Rushdie is, and Michael would shout back "oh

no he isn’t," and no one would get anywhere. De gustibus non est disputandum,

and all that. But then I had an idea: I could show, quantitatively,

that literary fiction is not just another genre, and is, in fact, separate and

different from the rest of contemporary fiction.

The idea came from reading a column

in Slate which reminded us that classic novels are big money makers. It’s

hard to track their sales, since they come in so many different editions, but

when you do, they outsell many bestsellers from only a few years ago.

Well, I don’t have access to Nielsen BookScan, but I do have access to,

which helpfully provides a sales rank for every book it offers. I had an idea:

that Rushdie and Morrison could be distinguished from their non-literary contemporaries

by their staying power. I would compare their books to those written at the

same time, and see where the numbers fell. If the literary types were selling

much more than the genre writers, then it would be clear what the difference

is between literary and other fiction: literary fiction aspires to longevity,

to being read many years in the future, whereas most other contemporary fiction

is written basically only for immediate consumption.

What follows is not tweaked at all for rhetorical purposes. I have included

every book I looked up: I haven’t excluded genre fiction which sold better than

I thought it would, or literary fiction which was languishing in the 200,000s

on Amazon’s sales rank. I didn’t need to: every literary book I looked up was

in Amazon’s top 10,000, while every non-literary book was lower, sometimes much

lower. What’s more, literary books were generally available in hardcover or

library bindings, whereas non-literary books generally weren’t: it’s clear which

ones are aimed at posterity.

The results, then: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is ranked

4,475 in

paperback and 23,337 in

hardback. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is 4,002 in

paperback, 6,788 in a

different edition, and 84,203 in hardback.

Other relatively recent literary books might include One Hundred Years

of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez, which is 2,394 in

paperback, and 9,469 for the Everyman’s


By contrast, the number one bestseller in 1988, The Cardinal of the Kremlin,

by Tom Clancy, is now 11,396 in

paperback and 28,473 in

hardback. Clancy’s royalties from this book are lower than those received

by Thomas Pynchon for the famously-unreadable Gravity’s Rainbow, which

is ranked

at 7,050.

The number one bestseller in 1991, selling an unprecedented 2 million copies

in hardback, was Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the

Wind, by Alexandra Ripley. Where is it now? At 17,776 in

paperback; the hardcover is long out of print. Even the paperback is outsold

by Infinite Jest, ferchrissakes.

The following year, the biggest-selling book was Dolores Claiborne,

by Stephen King. It’s now 85,325 in

paperback, and good luck finding the hardback (there is a library

binding, ranked at 500,670).

Meanwhile, let’s go back to literature, and Don DeLillo, whose White Noise

is ranked

at 3,461. The Viking Critical Library also has its own

edition, ranked at 26,378, which includes "an extensive critical apparatus,

including a critical introduction, selected essays on the author, the work and

its themes, reviews, a chronology of DeLillo’s life and work, a list of discussion

topics, and a selected bibliography."

DeLillo has another claim to literary merit: a scathing

review of his latest novel in the New York Times’ Sunday books section.

It is impossible to imagine a review such as this being written of any book

without literary aspirations: if Walter Kirn had written anything half as cutting

about Clancy, Ripley or King, the Times would never have published it. If such

a piece ever did appear, thousands of letters would come in, complaining that

Kirn doesn’t get it, or shouldn’t be reviewing such books in the first

place if he hates them so much.

Literary fiction is different, is more important, and not

only is taken more seriously than other types of fiction, but – rightly

– will continue to be taken more seriously for the foreseeable future.

Rushdie was universally panned for his latest

novel: he’s not some kind of sacred, untouchable icon of the publishing

world. Rather, he’s written some books – Shame, Midnight’s

Children, The Satanic Verses – which are magical, wonderful

works, the kind of writing that will be read with great pleasure long after

anybody reading this article is dead. In a word, literature.

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10 Responses to Literary fiction

  1. Unfortunately there is no plausible way to account for the serious literary works purchased as furniture – the gilded gift editions in the lawyer’s home study and the crisp new paperback DeLillos in the prowling bachelor’s plywood IKEA shelf.

    Not that it would undermine your conclusion. Just that it might deflate the numbers a little.

  2. geoff says:

    nice work felix… but it would make more sense to me in the form of a graph or something else visual- get on that will you.

    book as furniture deflating the numbers?

    bit of a stretch as fact… endless comedic material though.

  3. Eli Naeher says:

    There’s nothing like conflating popularity with quality to start the day off right. After all, everybody knows that literary quality is infallibly recognized by the buying public and the critical elite, and that there has never been a book which, twenty or fifty years later, was considered to be over- or underrated.

  4. Jay Currie says:

    I do a fair number of author interviews and, on and off the record, ask most authors what a “literary” novel is.

    The best definition I heard came from Nelson DeMille who told me a literary novel was one in which the author chose every word carefully.

    Obviously most writers try to do this, a very few succeed and we will know who they are fifty or a hundred years after they are dead.

  5. Josh Cartin says:

    bravo and well done. there is one variable that you did not account for and which could muddy the picture: Amazon sales ranks may not be a representative sample of “gross popularity.” it could be that the folks who buy from Amazon are more bibliophilic than the average shmo and thus more likely to buy “good” fiction than dreck. to balance the equation, you might also look at sales of “literature” and genre-fiction at such bastions of taste as Wal-Mart and Target.

  6. bc enstrom says:

    where do public library holdings and circulation statistics figure into this??

  7. Ann says:

    I would think that the greater number of genre fiction novels would have a rather large impact on this.

  8. Michael Greer says:

    I would like to propose another direction for your discussion. Rather than assessing literature in terms of quantity or quality, why not take literature as an instance of rhetoric? This is to say that what people choose to talk about when they talk about literature already says a great deal about them as persons. We have then an easy way to measure the ethos of an individual by the novels he or she mentions. Let me provide an example of what I mean by this proposition:

    A says that they have heard that Stephen King’s novel Dreamcatcher is selling briskly. Listening to this I notice right away that this person is caught in a marketing web and probably hasn’t got enough critical background to be talking about printed material.

    B says that Gravity’s Rainbow has a message for modern man. This warrants a comment from me: this person, at some point in his or her life, has thought of himself or herself as “avant-garde.”



  9. From Wikipedia, “In broad terms, literary fiction focuses more on style, psychological depth, and character, whereas mainstream commercial fiction (the page-turner) focuses more on narrative and plot.”

    And I’ll take style, psychological depth, and character over plot any day. Perhaps the only true test of whether something falls into the “literary” genre is if you can find it in the library 40+ years later, similar to any piece of art.

  10. Tony says:

    It is irrelevant how many books are sold. People will always buy books on reputation. The fact that a book has been on the long list of the booker, will increase sales for ever more.

    A much more revealing figure would be to find out how many people had read these books to the end, and what they then thought of them.

    I think you would find that most people would say Rushdie’s books are unfathomable rubbish. Which is exactly what they are.

    We have reached a point, in the real world, where the Booker is now a joke. Most people read fiction for pleasure, there is little pleasure in reading Rushdie.

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