Nothing like a portentous title to get the comments coming in – well that’s my cunning plan. But it’s a question I do ponder from time to time amongst more mundane issues like what to cook for supper and if my bedding plants (yes I still do bedding plants) will survive another gale. It actually started with Andew Marr (bless, is he better yet?) who wrote a column a few years ago saying he thought he might have ‘gone off’ fiction for the simple reason he was starting (as I recall) to find novels in general a bit, well, ho hum I suppose. And the awful thing is, I kind of know what he means. Not that I don’t like fiction (I don’t read much else) but having widened my reading remit to include decent indie authors and the things that Amazon/Twitter/Facebook throw at me (you may also like etc etc – I’m just too suggestible) I’m finding that more and more often I start a book and don’t finish it, not because there is anything wrong with it, but because it just isn’t really catching my interest. As a reader, I find this a bit worrying. Is my reading palate becoming jaded?
As a writer it’s terrifying. To write a decent novel is hard enough. To write one that stands out from the crowd is harder still and even more necessary than ever. Right now I’m reading a commercially published thriller set in ancient Rome which is well written and well researched and has a great opening scene. But even so, I kind of feel I know what’s coming – or what kind of thing. In short, having had two great Roman reads not so long ago, can I be bothered with another? A much-lauded literary prize-winner (no, not Mantel!) has met with a similar fate.
So what have I enjoyed? Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life starts off in a way that feels totally bonkers before settling in to a really great read. John Harding’s Florence and Giles had one of the most unusual voices I have ever read, and of recent ‘mainstream’ reads, only Heat Wave written in 1999 by Penelope Lively, an absolute master of the genre, has really captivated me. All of these had a piquancy which kept me interested, much more more ala carte than set menu.
Writer, readers, publishers are all in the same boat, I think, and what we have now is a bit of a polarisation in fiction into genre fiction (crime, romance, horror or mystery) which is predictable in many respects (and I say this with no disrespect whatever to any of the fab genre writers). But we know these books will do what they say on their respective tins and are happy to pick up new brands and even stuff in the bargain/indie shelf because hey, a love story is a love story and a murder is a murder. So for 99p what’s not to like? Which is why I think indie genre authors can do pretty well. People understand the brand.
The flip side is that ‘non-genre’ fiction needs either a very big name or a corker of a USP, i.e. a tin that looks different to anything else we have ever seen, or made from some eye-catching material if it’s to get out notice at all, and when we pick it up we might still not really fancy it unless we’re pretty sure we’re going to get value for our £5 or £6 e-book compared to an indie £1.99.
So where is this going? Is general fiction dead? Well I don’t think so, but we need to be aware that a good story well told (which what agents and publishers are always telling us they want) might not actually be enough. As readers we are fickle and swing from what’s tried and tested to something entirely novel. If we go for the new, it has to be not roughly what we expect but something a lot better, something that surprises and delights.
Where does this leave the writer? Well, no one said it would be easy.
By the way, apologies if any comments here go unanswered for a couple of days – a short break in transmission is coming up.