Why is Fiction Faltering?

Book lovers, brace yourselves; fiction sales are on a steep, steady decline, and it’s not looking good for the future.

Photo by Becca Tapert

Between 2013 and 2017, we’ve seen a 16% drop in adult fiction revenue, with numbers still on the downward slope at this point in 2018. 16% over four years is a troubling figure, and I can’t help but wonder what’s going on to drive such a severe deterioration in sales.

There are the usual suspects, of course — a greater variety of entertainment options have become available in recent years, publishers are taking fewer risks with new books and authors, people are reading more nonfiction…it all adds up. But the more I think about these plausible causes, the more I believe there’s something about fiction — specifically, the role that fiction plays and the purpose it serves — that we have begun to perceive differently.

Think, for a moment, about the niche fiction occupies versus the one nonfiction occupies. Think about the end reading each serves. We seek out nonfiction to gain something tangible — a blueprint for self-improvement, greater knowledge about a person or situation, a recipe or guidance on a fitness journey. Fiction, on the other hand, is a bit more slippery. We seek out fiction for a story — immersion in a world different from our own; a glimpse into a past, present, or future that we have to invest ourselves and our imaginations in to really appreciate.

When we read fiction (especially literary fiction), we’re grappling with concepts and themes that can be elusive. We have to do more mental work to come to terms with the abstractions of a made-up world with its made-up people and events, whereas we have an easier time trusting the sense of nonfiction. None of this is to say that fiction is somehow less “real” than nonfiction; on the contrary, I think fiction can sometimes be a little too real, too raw. When you come across a book that resonates, it strikes a nerve. It causes you to feel a feeling or think a thought that doesn’t necessarily have a purpose — it just is. They’re still real feelings and thoughts, just without a particular end.

So, nonfiction gives us something concrete that we can use in our everyday lives; more passive entertainment mediums like television let us escape with significantly less effort; and fiction draws us away from the reality we know and asks us to give ourselves to someplace different.

These days, with everything going on in the world, I think many who are shying away from fiction feel that what the genre asks of us is too much. We’re craving sanctuary, a reprieve from the chaos around us, and fiction can seem frivolous when it feels like we ought to be anchoring ourselves in this storm. So we turn to nonfiction, which satisfies our appetite for practically useful information and knowledge; we turn to television and movies, which satisfy our appetite for entertainment without investment; and we set aside fiction for a time when we feel whole enough to enjoy it again.

I am a part of this trend. I’ve noticed myself drifting away from fiction in favor of the security and sense of knowing that comes with nonfiction, and the ease of enjoyment that comes with film and TV. Because I’m not necessarily happy about this shift in perspective, I’m trying to combat any complacency I may feel with this attitude by reminding myself constantly that fiction is capable of healing and teaching and making us feel a little less alone if we let it. As readers, remaining receptive and willing to engage with the difficult aspects of life — both inner and outer — is key to weathering this downturn. I suggest we all take the time to check in with ourselves, figure out what it is we need the most, and search for a story that fills that space.