Where have all the novels gone?

2009 was a bumper crop for fall fiction. This year, the big names are in short supply.


 

Getty Images; iStock; Andrew Tolson/ Photo Illustration by Adam Cholewa

The tradition in publishing is that serious fiction and the fall season go together like horses and carriages. Want to promote the latest thriller? Save it for the summer. Have a debut novel to push? Try the spring, so the big guns won’t crowd it out. But at a time when publishing tropes are vanishing faster than you can say e-book, holding back the most prestigious titles for the window between Labour Day and Christmas may be on the way out.

Granted, very few fall seasonal crops could be as bountiful as last year’s, which featured new books by awards regulars such as Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, A.S. Byatt, Jonathan Lethem and John Irving. By comparison, this year’s slate seems a bit thin. There’s another by Philip Roth (who produces novels at an annual rate these days), and new fiction from Salman Rushdie, Sara Gruen and Michael Cunningham. But the BookExpo America trade show emphasized potential summer hits—and newspaper preview stories are concentrating on 2011 non-fiction. What happened to fall fiction?

Increasingly, there’s been a blurring of seasonal lines. “Fall fiction is a misnomer now,” said Sam Hiyate, a Toronto literary agent with the Rights Factory. “Publishers used to count on 80 per cent of their [fiction] sales coming in the fall, but a few years ago a survey showed the number has dropped to less than 50 per cent.”

Consider that the most talked-about book of the fall is Jonathan Franzen’s No. 1 bestseller Freedom, his first novel since The Corrections stormed its way to commercial and controversial success nine years ago. The conversation online and off has been so deafening for so many weeks, it’s easy to forget the book was only published on Aug. 31—which technically still counts as the summer season.

In fact, those hot and humid days were kind to literary fiction, both from heavyweights and newcomers: David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (June), Gary Shteyngart’s dystopian satire Super Sad True Love Story (July), and Aimee Bender’s fantastical The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which outperformed expectations by selling well for weeks after its June release. Even Yann Martel’s Beatrice & Virgil, a natural for a fall release, was instead published—to disappointing sales and mixed reviews—in April.

Nevertheless, a bias lingers: if it’s published after Labour Day, it must be worthy. And that might allow otherwise overlooked titles to stand out this fall. Ben McNally, proprietor of Toronto independent bookstore Ben McNally Books, is excited about what he views as a “bumper crop” of fiction titles. He points to the Booker-shortlisted Room by London, Ont.-based Emma Donoghue, as a potentially “massive book,” even if the dark subject matter—growing up in captivity, the child of a kidnapped woman—may make “the content rough for mainstream audiences.” Other Canadian authors McNally is particularly keen on include stalwarts like Alissa York and Camilla Gibb as well as French-Canadian writer Dominique Fortier, whose historical novel On the Proper Use of Stars is based on the Franklin Expedition.

Erin Balser, a writer and literary critic with Torontoist and CBC.ca, points to How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti, author of experimental fiction such as Ticknor and The Middle Stories, as a key fall title. “This explorative autobiography fictional thing—seriously, read the description—should be as honest, hilarious and original as her past work and a must-read for twentysomething gals trying to make their way in the world, such as myself,” Balser explained.

But one potential big booster of fall fiction, who might have been able to shine a light on an underrated title, has instead gone with the consensus. On Sept. 17, Oprah Winfrey announced her 64th book club pick would be Franzen’s new novel. It’s a fitting, ironic twist to choose Franzen again, considering how his public hand-wringing in 2001—over concern that Oprah might scare off male readers by picking The Corrections—led to his subsequent disinvitation. But the pick, which may be Oprah’s last since the show ends production next year, solidifies the idea that these days, there’s room in the marketplace for only one big fall-fiction title.


 

Where have all the novels gone?

  1. As the old generation of "famous" writers dies off – and most of them have – the ranks of MFAs who clog the agent and publisher pipelines with, to be kind, fairly uniform mediocrity, and that stuff is not worth noting or saving from one season to the other. In my humble opinion, it's also part of the sluggishness of book sales in general which is the same fate TV suffered when the public lost interest in junk shows. Serious fiction, exciting, challenging, "heavy" fiction all comes from foreign authors who were never "taught" how to write. They learned to Live and figured out the techniques of relating that on their own. That's why Saramago or Chris Albani or Rushdie are so different. They never learned the formulas. So we outsourced Serious Fall Fiction. Even the few major Americans like Diaz or Cormac McCarthy don't write about the pap of the suffocating college courses. It's metaphors and ideas to wrestle with, not kiddie books and vampires that made the Fall Fiction important. It's over! And it's another major loss to the American culture. The bean counters and the uncultured have cooked the books. The entire industry, hysterically waving their hands and flapping their arms as if they would fly around the kitchen and fix it with electronic means have forgotten that if you have nothing to say no one will listen.

    But nothing is total loss. All of the "Creative" Writing courses keep a lot of otherwise unemployable people off the dole and it's unclogged the Psychology and Sociology Departments.

    • I suppose it's easy to write cynical, critical comments when you're "anonymot." I don't have an MFA, but I know many wonderful writers who do. And frankly, I don't think we can say for certain that "It's over!" based on one sluggish fall season. Once is an event; only time will tell if the relative thinness of this fall's literary list is the start of a trend, or an aberration.

  2. The thinness referred to says more about habits of reading than the content of books coming out. How can one say what a set of new books will be like, or how they will be received, when they're either not out yet or not available widely just now?

    My first book came out today. _Verbatim: A Novel_ (ISBN: 978-1926531038), published by Enfield & Wizenty, is a satirical exposé of parliamentary practice set in a fictional Canadian province. Dirty tricks, vicious insults, and parliamentary rules are some of the weapons members use while ostensibly representing their constituents. Infighting about petty matters within the staff of Hansard—the legislature's recording division—and on the part of other bureaucrats emulates the behaviour of their political masters, stripping away, even further, the parliamentary system's supposed dignity and honourable traditions. Its form is unusual: it's told only in letters, debates set out in dual column format, and lists of members.

    Some reviewers will see it as 'experimental' (if it's noticed it at all). It's available for order at Indigo and Amazon.ca. It comes with a blurb from Wayne Johnston. Think about it, anyway.