ALLi's News Editor Dan Holloway, author, poet, journalist, campaigner and performance poet, writes with characteristic passion about why it's important for both authors and literary award organisers to embrace self-publishing as the natural home for literary fiction.
Where is the great indie literary fiction? In short, it is nowhere. Or, if it is somewhere, we have no idea where, and until literary awards and media get their act together, that will remain the case.
Literary fiction has been on ALLi’s mind a lot of late. And it has never really been off mine. But three things have converged in the past couple of days to prompt me to write this, more as a plea than anything else.
- On Wednesday, Eimear McBride took part in a Guardian webchat. She is, of course, author of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, which won five major awards including the Goldsmiths Prize, set up to celebrate novels that push the form to its limits (but closed to indies). But, famously, she very nearly didn’t get a publisher, finally hooking the brilliant Galley Beggar Press after many years. I asked her if she thought the book would have got the recognition it did had she self-published. Her answer was that she thought it would have sunk without a trace.
- On Saturday, I was privileged to take part in a panel at Triskele Lit Fest (alongside Galley Beggar’s founder Sam Jordison) called Preserving the Unicorn, talking about uniqueness in literary fiction, specifically how I am working to preserve the uniqueness in my role as editor of Rohan Quine’s stunning new novel The Beasts of Electra Drive.
- Before that, I was at the City and Guilds MA show, where some beautiful pieces by my friend and collaborator of old Sarm Derbois were being shown. We had one of those wonderfully intense, frank conversations you can only have with fellow artists who believe that art should bend for nothing.
Each of these things has made me think about self-published literary fiction. Not about where the great literary fiction is. There isn’t any (then again with a gun to my head I could probably only list 3 great literary books published this century – White Teeth, 2666, and House of Leaves – “Girl” will almost certainly join the list). But about why it isn’t there.
Let me rewind a moment. I am sick to death of the fact this paragraph needs writing but it does:
I love genre fiction. I write genre fiction. Genre fiction can be great art. But what I don’t love is the anti-intellectualism that attends some elements of the literary/genre debate, which shoots down anyone who mentions “art” for being arrogant, which makes accusations of snobbery, which patronises or belittles the experimental, and has no place for anyone who wants to take their place on the wider historical stage.
So, let’s get clear what I’m talking about. Great literary fiction not only does change the world. In its own way it sets out to change the world (of course not all lit fic writers set out to change the world. Not all set out to write great literary fiction, and that is absolutely no negative reflection on them or their writing and I SHOULDN’T HAVE TO SAY THAT). However small that change, it has an awareness both that it is part of something larger and that it is contributing its own footnote to that larger thing. It has something to say, and it attains greatness when that utterance finds the technically perfect medium for expressing it.
And in the current self-publishing era, unlike with genre fiction (Becky Chambers’ Long Journey to a Small, Angry Planet being the obvious example), there simply isn’t any.
That’s not to demean my fellow literary fiction self-publishers. But it matters. It matters because too many people (and discovery websites) will tell you there is. And that does readers a HUGE disservice. Because they will stop trusting us.
There is a lot of very good literary fiction self-published. At least the equal of a lot of traditionally published work. And that’s fabulous to read, but it’s not great.
The problem is we have found ourselves in a Catch-22 that McBride’s comment captures perfectly. Many readers who want to read this kind of book still go for their recommendations to the prize lists, to certain places in the media. So as long as they remain closed to self-publishers, those who are most likely to produce great literary fiction will be most likely to go the traditional route – and the growth of fabulous small presses means they are more likely than ever to succeed. Yet because there has been no great self-published literary fiction, those prizes have little reason to open up. All the more reason that when they do, as the Young Writer of the Year has, writers consider self-publishing and entering.
There are people self-publishing who have the potential to write something truly great. Rohan Quine is one of them (if he spends enough time with the right editor :p). Interestingly, the list I would reel off is significantly shorter than it would have been two years ago as more of those on it turn to small presses.
We need a great self-published literary book to open the media and the prize world – McBride’s brush with rejection was clearly not enough of a warning to them of what they might miss – which is very disappointing. But for that to happen we need enough writers who want to create that kind of book, who think that deeply about their place in cultural history and want to contribute a line, to stay self-publishing. We need a place for them to gravitate to, and we need the promise that they just may get read by the right people. And we need to be ruthlessly honest about just how rare great literary fiction is (whilst welcoming all with the ambition to write it).
That’s a big ask.
OVER TO YOU We'd love you to join this discussion via the comments box, and Dan will be glad to reply.Why #selfpub is the natural home for great #litfic - and why awards need to admit its writers by @agnieszkasshoes Click To Tweet
ANOTHER PROVOCATIVE POST ABOUT LITERARY FICTION:
By Rohan Quine, whom Dan cites in his piece as a potential author of great litfic