“I wonder if the fiction market isn't in decline,” I said. “In fact, I wonder if the internet hasn't altered our taste for fiction to the point where we don't much care for it anymore. We read what we read on the internet, 99.9% of which is non-fiction — blogs, editorials, grand theories regarding entertainment, politics, religion, society. We entertain these theories during our daylight hours, and if they're provocative enough we approach the bookstore and buy something that either proves or disproves what we've been thinking about. Every day we willingly expose ourselves to a deluge of 'information'; a deluge unlike anything any previous generation ever had to process. Now we're text-messaging, e-mailing, downloading our music to provide us with a 24-hour soundtrack. We don't 'use' the novel to make sense of contemporary experience, the way we used to. 'Theory' appears to be more immediate and more dynamic than narrative. It also appears to offer limits. Fiction writers typically hate limits, but society craves them, so we turn to non-fiction. We are becoming a post-fiction society.”
This is the sort of thing you can expect me to say after I've enjoyed a dram or two of whisky. At the moment, however, I was sipping nothing more intoxicating than Corr's Black Cherry Soda. Mind you, this was at the Centre Street Deli, where I was also eating a plate of delicious smoked meat and savouring an enormous gherkin pickle. Rapturous food can inspire rapturous opinions; normally I'd blame the pickle, but that meat was succulent stuff.
Today, in the sober morning light, I sought confirmation in the bestseller lists. Having contributed to the Globe & Mail's statistics pool in years past, I deliberately avoided them along with other newspaper and magazine lists. The word “blindsided” was coined for just such institutions and their blinkered lists — the enquring reader is better off consulting the horoscopes page for an accurate take on what people are reading. Instead I went directly to Amazon.ca to see what their bestsellers were.
As of 10:15 a.m. (Central), the number one bestseller is Freakonomics, followed by the memoirs of our former Governor General, Adrian Clarkson. So far, so good. Then we have Spellbound by Nora Roberts and Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood — fiction, both. Number Five is Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth — non-fiction again (hooray!). The next five are Reading Like A Writer (literary non-fiction), You: The Owner's Manual (self-help), Inside My Heart (memoir, self-help), Wayne Johnston's The Custodian of Paradise (fiction) and How To Win Friends And Influence People (I can hardly believe my eyes, but there you go: self-help again). Eight of the next fifteen entries are fiction, so IF this brief glimpse is in any way indicative fiction is still a healthy, selling genre—but in the minority. Of the top 25 titles, 11 are fiction (I include Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, which exists in a dodgy category all its own — New Age self-help, dressed up as a cheerful novel).
If I look at my yearly list of books read, non-fiction is indeed gaining traction, but I'm still chiefly drawn to fiction. However, here is how my taste in novels has shifted: I used to seek out the “hip” first, then the literary, followed by genre fiction. These days genre comes first, literary second, and hip last. I am drawn, first and foremost, to stories involving easily identifiable characters struggling toward an easily identifiable conclusion. I am suspicious of “hip”, and judging from my nephews and nieces, so is the younger generation. Have today's Twenty-Somethings latched on to a novel the way I and my peers did to Coupland's Generation X, back in the day? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I very much doubt it. And as for the literary novel, my impulse is to read historical literary fiction before I pick up something that aspires to being contemporary. Again, if this list is any indication I am not alone.
“You just might have something there,” said my friend. She'd started the conversation by confessing her own waning interest in fiction. “Why don't you put it up on your blog and see what other people think.”
Alright then: what do you think?