Population 263 – Literary Fiction in The Twilight Zone

Ever hear of the village of Myrsina. No? It’s a dying village in Northern Greece with a rapidly declining, elderly, infirm, & utterly demoralised population of 263. 

If & when it becomes entirely derelict, nobody apart from those tiny few directly concerned will even notice.

The condition of contemporary literary fiction is analogous to that of the terminal village of Myrsina, only worse.

“In 2001, every literary fiction title written in English sold an average 1,153 copies. By 2015 this had completely changed – every literary fiction title written in English sold an average of only 263 copies” Fiammetta Rocco, administrator of the Man Booker International prize.

The UK market for literary fiction has declined from extremely marginal to non-existent. It’s not significantly better in Ireland, US, or anywhere else as far as the figures I can dig up tell.

In Ireland it is clear that, aside from a very rare phenomenon like Sally Rooney, who had achieved something like a public readership even before the smash hit TV shows, contemporary literary fiction writers are likely to have far more twitter followers than readers, and to earn their keep through sales of film rights and other epiphenomenon such as festival appearances, workshops, grant-harvesting and so on. Lucrative as all this can be for some for a few years, it has of course nothing to do with literary fiction and in the end there are always less readers than before.

Does anyone remember the Twilight Zone episode where the old father dies, but refuses to accept he is dead, & turns up to the dinner table every evening in his finest suit, stinking more & more every day, until one day his nose falls into the cornflakes & the situation, after seeming interminable, just becomes too absurd to carry on all of a sudden?

Every year the Villagers of Myrsina hold an awards ceremony. It is the central & defining event of their year. There are prizes for Best Villager, Second Best Villager, Best Dressed Villager, Second Best Dressed Villager, Wittiest Villager, Swankiest Villager, Newest Villager, Oldest Villager, Weirdest Villager….

Every year new prizes are added, & even greater efforts are made by the villagers to transform themselves & indeed the entire shrinking, dilapidated, practically abandoned, disregarded, laughable village into something that looks, & even to a certain extent feels, briefly like something important. 

Even for those few villagers who don’t win any of the ever-extending list of prizes this year, there is always great hope. For next year the population will be only 196, & therefore their chances of a major prize will have greatly increased! 

& the year after that, or in ten years time, who knows! Never give up hope. Chase the dream! The villager who wins nothing in 2016 may take every single prize in 2026 – since they will be the only one left in the village.

How far are we from the nose-falling-into-the-cornflakes moment for the current publishing model of literary fiction? Or are we long past it?

(Of course, it is the Dead Father from The Twilight Zone who suavely comperes the Myrsina Village Awards every year, with every year the stitching holding on his nose ever more obvious. But none of the villagers ever mention this, since it is not in their interests to mention the obvious, & whoever would dare to mention it would surely never again win any prizes, & besides the Dead Father’s suits are always so interesting & his sponsored shoes so spotless).