Saturday, March 25, 2006

Type Cast 10

If, as the saying goes, politics is show business for ugly people (who said that, Sheila Copps?), than fiction writing, in Canada at least, is show business for invisible people.

For the last several months - ever since the fall book sales figures came slouching in - the publishing world has been full of stories, some apocryphal, some verifiable, about the Great Sales Slump of 2005. Fiction, we are told, is moving off the shelves at about the same pace as Nsync re-issues.

Like the alleged Hollywood slump of 2005 (isn’t it heartbreaking to hear people complain about only making 100 million dollars instead of 150 million dollars?), the fiction slump has bred any number of theories, almost all of them from people who do not actually write fiction.

To find out if the sales slump is real or imagined, and, far more fun, to give writers an outlet for their always amusing anxieties, I solicited views from fiction writers (and one editor) from across the country. Not surprisingly, there are lots of opinions and no hard facts. These people aren’t novelists for nothing, and facts are for sports writers.

Jason Anderson, a Toronto arts journalist whose first novel, the very funny entertainment-world satire Showbiz, came out last fall, wonders if any artist should ever expect an audience.

“I have no illusions. Whenever I see those Nobody Buys Novels stories, I’m always amazed that people ever bought novels in the first place, the novel is really commercial. If you’ve written a difficult literary novel, why is it strange that nobody has bought it?”

“For my own book, I was happy to have acquaintances buy it, the ring beyond family and friends. Just because you created something, it’s egotistical to think there’s an audience for whatever you do – you have to constantly create an audience. Sometimes people in the arts in Canada think that they are owed an audience, but I think you should be happy with whatever audience you can find.”

Sally Cooper, the Hamilton-based author of the critically-acclaimed novel Love Object, is wary of all the doom-saying and, like Anderson, flips the question back to the audience.

“Nobody I know who loves fiction has suddenly switched to non-fiction. People like a balance, sure, but lovers of fiction will always buy it and read it. I'm always wary of trends, anyway. Fiction's not going anywhere; neither are its readers.”

Sabine Campbell, Fredericton-based editor of the legendary literary journal The Fiddlehead, and the Montreal novelist Peter Dube, author of Hovering World, both cite economics as a factor in the overall decline in book sales.

“I can say that a) our subscription rates seem to be down a bit this year and b) that our fiction contest isn't drawing as many writers as it used to”, Campbell admits.

“And I know that I'm buying fewer books myself. I tend to lend and borrow among friends and go to the library more often. Books cost so damn much.”

“So am I saying prices are to blame? Not entirely - perhaps the ever increasing number of books is a problem too.”

Dube echoes the supply-demand argument, and questions the marketing strategies employed by Canadian publishers.

“I suspect the problem – as usual – is the business model. Publishers put out more and more books, looking for the next big thing – which makes it hard for any title to stand out. They then stack up their marketing behind a very, very few books compared to what they actually print. And the marketing budgets get allocated on the principle of it being easier to sell more of what is already selling than to sell something new and different – all in the interests of maximizing short term profit in an increasingly competitive arena, versus audience (and author’s career) development.”

“So, if memoirs are selling, flog more of them until they stop selling. People tend to buy books they’ve heard of (especially in a market where unit prices have been raised to the roof in order to offset the cost of all those books printed that didn’t sell). More titles with higher prices, with less attention given to any of them must necessarily equal a tiny handful of books in a handful of genres being the only ones to move.”

See how the Hollywood model is never very far away when one talks about selling cultural products, be they ballet or books? As Dube notes, if one thing sells, publishers will find five more of the same thing – kind of like those Hollywood executives who keep turning old television shows (Bewitched, The Dukes of Hazzard) into stinky movies (ditto), just because Mission: Impossible was a huge hit.

As you read this, I guarantee you some Canadian editor is primping a memoir of drug addiction set in Saskatoon and an ecclesiastical mystery based on Krieghoff’s painting of Montreal’s Notre Dame cathedral.

Warren Dunford, author of a trilogy of hilarious murder mysteries – his latest, The Scene Stealer, is out in paperback - echoes my cynicism, and has a few choice words for the nation’s editors.

“If fiction sales are in a slump, it may be because many of the new Canadian books feel like old Canadian books. Publishers keep putting out subtle domestic dramas and tales of historical angst. Obviously that's led to some very fine literature, but not many people want to step into those dire worlds over and over again.”

“Books have to hold their own as entertainment in today's culture. People want to feel excited about reading a new book, not just dutiful. That means that books need to offer really compelling stories, not only character portraits. Unfortunately, the idea of a 'Canadian page-turner' still feels like an oxymoron."

To end on a more philosophical note, I’ll leave the last word to Vancouver’s Michael V. Smith, author of the award-winning novel Cumberland. Although Smith leads a double life as a notorious drag queen, he’s no Silly Sally when it comes to the bigger picture.

“I think a lot of the decline in fiction has to do with the current political climate. With the war in Iraq, and post-911, I suspect we're a lot more interested in current affairs and politics. People are hungry for facts, and truth. We're not getting much truth nor much analysis in the media. Fiction is often seen as escapist, because it concerns itself with the construction of alternate worlds. “

“Perhaps if there were more books being written like Handmaid's Tale, Canadian books with politics, social commentary, criticism, satire even, rather than domestic dramas of middle class angst, we'd see more fiction flying off the shelves.”

Hear, hear!