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Why serious literary fiction like Ishiguro’s is vital in times like these

Alice O'Keeffe

It’s always entertaining to observe the interaction between the news media and a writer who has just won the Nobel prize. The all-time best was obviously Doris Lessing, who when doorstepped simply rolled her eyes and snorted “Oh Christ”, before turning around to pay for her taxi. Bob Dylan studiously ignored the whole thing, while Kazuo Ishiguro had clearly emerged from solitary confinement in his study on Thursday (he is in the middle of writing a novel), to face a barrage of questions and photographs. Blinking and bewildered, he described the themes he has spent his life thinking about and painstakingly unpicking: “The way countries and nations and communities remember their past, and how often they bury the uncomfortable memories from their past.” Such matters don’t lend themselves easily to a soundbite; asking a literary giant to respond to the demands of a 24-hour news cycle is a little like asking a dinosaur to ride a bike. Writing and reading novels are activities that take place in opposition to the frantic, thoughtless rush of modern life. They demand a different quality of commitment and concentration, and a longer time scale. Serious novelists do our deep thinking for us, and find ways to communicate big questions (“the way countries and nations remember their past”) within stories so compelling that readers absorb them without having to try. We read Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day because we want to know whether housekeeper Miss Kenton ends up with butler Mr Stevens, and in the meantime absorb the atmosphere and politics of pre-second-world-war Britain. We are bewitched by the prehistoric, magical landscapes of his 2015 novel The Buried Giant, and incidentally find ourselves thinking about the importance of history to a bewildered, conflicted nation. This is a time of year when novelists are all over the headlines, not only because of the Nobel, but also with the impending announcement of the winner of the Booker prize. Meanwhile the publishing industry is gearing up with the Frankfurt book fair, the avalanche of books just released on “Super Thursday”, and the rush for pre-Christmas sales.

Amid the autumnal air of bookish celebration, the picture presented by the books industry is far from gloomy: thanks to the popularity of cookery, lifestyle, colouring and children’s books, sales figures for physical books remain surprisingly resilient, despite the onslaught of Amazon and e-readers. On the literary side, the Booker longlist this year was notably strong and diverse, a true reflection of the weird, wonderful and varied writing that is emerging from these weird (and not so wonderful) times.
But all those reasons to be cheerful are set against a backdrop of real anxiety about the future of the literary novel. Writers from Will Self to Howard Jacobson, from Robert Harris to Claire Messud, have raised the alarm about declining attention spans, and the time that people previously spent reading now losing out to competition from digital media.
Eminent publishers predict a long-term decline for the entire industry, as younger people turn to other forms of entertainment. From a personal perspective, such worries feel well-founded: I organise the books events for the Brighton festival, and it’s been interesting to observe the pattern in ticket sales. With a few big-name exceptions, events with literary fiction authors are hard to sell unless they are talking about how to write, or taking part in a discussion panel related to a broader theme. It also feels as though my friends read less than they used to. Parents of young children seem to push their offspring towards books and limit their screen time (hence the robust sales of children’s books), while they themselves spend every moment of leisure time plugged in. Those with older children report that an early interest in reading gives way to the easier, faster-moving temptations of Netflix, Facebook and Instagram. Working out whether these observations are supported by sales figures is no simple task. The Publishers Association reports a 7% decline in fiction sales in 2016, a decline of 23% since 2012; other sources such as Nielsen BookScan present a less dramatic drop of around 1%, with strong growth in graphic novels and comics. According to Philip Jones, editor of the Bookseller, “sales of commercial fiction are in rude health, but there is a general awareness that sales of literary fiction are suffering”. Why does it matter? After all, there are plenty of issues that currently seem more pressing than the fate of the novel. Fiction can feel like a luxury in a world of nuclear and environmental threat, crumbling political and economic systems, and general chaos. But that is also precisely why proper, challenging reading is so important: to read a good novel is to spend a serious amount of time immersed in the consciousness of another person; to reach out across the barriers that separate us from one another. It is to take the time to cultivate the focus necessary to step back from the distractions of day-to-day life and think bigger. Surely we all need that now, more than ever.