Mark Mordue, a non-fiction writer, had a piece in Spectrum this weekend ("Fiction's lost plot", Sydney Morning Herald, 25/1/03) asking if non-fiction was "about to become more important" than fiction. As a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, this subject is close to my heart so I was interested to see Mordue's spin.
Mordue asked a bunch of publishers, indie and mainstream, about a possible trend towards non-fiction at the expense of fiction. Not surprisingly, indie publishers pointed the finger at gutless distributors and money-hungry mainstream publishers, saying any lack of new fiction being published in Australia was the result of "publishing cowardice" towards books that could be considered risky or marginal. Literary non-fiction journal publishers told him that non-fiction is merely filling a gap in the Australian market and what's more, we actually could use more essay-style non-fiction by big name writers.
I couldn't figure out whether Mordue was arguing that less fiction is being written, or being published, or being read. But I'm pretty sure there are plenty of other hopeful novelists out there slaving over their hot keyboards, hoping Text publisher Michael Heyward is right when he says to Mordue, "Sometimes a great novelist can come out of nowhere." So I don't think less fiction is being written. Maybe less writers are being nurtured, and maybe less publishers are spending the money to spread the word. Mordue doesn't talk about marketing, but it would have to play a major role in enabling new fiction authors to reach a wider audience.
Tony Moore, of Pluto Press, mentions in passing the relation to the rise of the documentary form in our culture. This, to me, is a significant point but one which Mordue doesn't further explore. The popularity of "reality" formats would definitely have a spin-off into books, and non-fiction would be the lucky beneficiary of the interest in all things "real". However, I agree with Sophie Cunningham of Allen & Unwin, whom Mordue quotes as saying, "It's bullshit to say one is more authentic than the other. Good writing creates authenticity--whether it's fiction or non-fiction."
A case history
Looking at my bookcase, I seem to snaffle up every "important" new author: Jonathan Franzen, Nick McDonell, Yann Martel. Naturally enough since I am one of their contemporaries, I am especially fond of young female authors like Julia Leigh, Chloe Hooper, Lucy Lehmann. And then I have to top up my favourites, my Kureishis and Kunderas, my Zadie Smiths, my new release Carvers. And then there's the beautiful hybrids, the Drusilla Modjeskas, the Helen Garners. But I also read McKenzie Wark and Margaret Wertheim and Stephen Jay Gould. Somehow there just seems to be enough space to absorb all the forms of writing.
Anyway, television has been through the same identity crisis. People thought reality TV would cannibalise the viewing market, but audiences still clung to fictitious shows, and in Australia were even rewarded with quality true-to-life fiction series like Love is a Four Letter Word (ABC) or The Secret Life of Us (Ten), despite the love affair with shows like Big Brother and The Osbournes (both Ten).
Perhaps the missing link will be literature verite, when ordinary Joes start publishing their diaries and calling it art. (Don't worry Mum, I threw out all my teenage diaries in a fit of pique five years ago.)