Is Netflix killing the novel?

woman-945427_1920
Image by Free Photos from Pixabay

There was a bit of alarm in the book world recently when the Publishers Association in the UK announced a 7% decline in revenue from sales of fiction (physical formats) in 2018. There was a rise in sales of digital formats but not enough to offset fully the drop in sales of actual books. In contrast, non-fiction sales were up and are now worth almost £1bn! Audiobooks have also enjoyed big increases in the last couple of years.

Those of us who feel strongly about books may find this rather worrying and publishers have identified fiction as most vulnerable as there are now so many other things competing for a slice of our leisure time. In my household, I have three teenagers and whilst they do all read (some more than others!) it is undoubtedly Netflix that commands  more of their attention. They will quite literally walk around with their earphones on watching their mobile phone screens! (As I wrote that I chuckled to myself, thinking about Anna Burns’s central character in Milkman who got such a hard time for “reading whilst walking around”!)

Don’t get me wrong, I do watch Netflix and am working my way through a couple of box sets at the moment. I seldom watch more than one episode per sitting, though; I know some people will watch several episodes back to back, and suddenly your evening is gone. ‘On demand’ television is great, but I do feel you have to have balance in life – I also have on-demand coffee and chocolate in my house but I wouldn’t dream of drinking three consecutive cups per evening! The reasons are obvious. And whilst Netflix, Amazon, computer games or social media are probably not going to make you really wired and stop you sleeping (though they might!) it is still important to be able to stop and switch off, to know that there are other things in life that deserve your attention and may be better for you.

Some might argue that it’s all just entertainment and it’s not doing us any harm, and, indeed, that there is high quality television out there. The Handmaid’s Tale, for example, has made an extraordinarily successful transition from novel to Netflix and this will no doubt drive an increase in sales of Margaret Atwood’s follow-up book The Testaments, due for publication this Autumn. However, it’s not the blockbusters, the big-name, already rich and famous authors who need our support, it’s all the other writers, striving to get their books noticed. My worry is that the links between on-demand television and online book retailers, and the time-pressed, mobile phone-dependent consumer will create a perfect storm where the choice of reading we have available is gradually narrowed and homogenised.

I am pleased to see non-fiction is thriving; there are some wonderful history, philosophy and political books out there. And I do believe the trends in children’s books are more encouraging, less linked as they are to television and film.

All I can say is we must keep reading widely, keep campaigning to ensure our libraries stay open and use our bookshops before we lose them, particularly independents. Oh, and go to a literary festival or an author talk.

Do you worry about the future of the novel?

If you have enjoyed this post I would love for you to follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media.

Book review – “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones

2019-06-14 10.49.53This book has been on my to-read list for some time now, ever since it caught my eye over a year ago when it was published. I recommended it as a hot new read for Spring last year, in fact! Following in my footsteps (he must have read my blog post!) Barack Obama recommended it as one of his Summer reads last year and he is quoted on the cover as saying this is “A moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple.” Notably, it also won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in June.

Let me get my cards on the table straight away – I loved this book, and it completely lived up to the hype it has had. It is such an interesting topic for a novel and yet one in which very little actually ‘happens’. It is a tender account of a relationship and the effect that one single event has upon them. It does not once get sentimental, does not set out actively to campaign about the injustice of the one event, and does not take sides. It just lays everything bare for the reader to draw their own conclusions. It will break your heart and fill you with hope at the same time.

Roy and Celestial are a young African-American couple, living in Atlanta, Georgia and their lives are on the up. They come from rather different backgrounds: Celestial is the daughter of a teacher and an academic, and is hoping to forge a career as an artist. Roy is the only son of Olive and Big Roy (who is not his biological father), decidedly more blue-collar but with strong values, pride, and deep Christian faith. They met through a mutual friend, Andre, who has lived next door to Celestial’s parents since they were children. Roy and Celestial are very much in love, but it is still early days in their marriage and they have their ups and downs.

They visit Roy’s parents in Louisiana one weekend and decide to stay in a motel; Olive has a slight suspicion about her daughter-in-law’s commitment to her son and it is more comfortable for both women if the couple do not stay in the family home. Roy and Celestial have an argument and Roy storms out of their motel room. He meets with a white woman whilst fetching ice and the two get talking. He tells her about the argument with his wife. Later that night, the police storm Roy and Celestial’s room whilst they are sleeping and arrest Roy on suspicion of rape of the woman he had chatted with earlier in the evening. At the trial, the woman testifies with certainty against Roy and it is quite apparent that Roy has little chance of escaping a guilty verdict, even though his innocence is clear to all who know him. Roy is sentenced to twelve years in prison.

The early chapters set the scene, switching between first person accounts by Roy and Celestial of their backgrounds, how they met and their recollections of the fateful night. The following chapters are an exchange of letters between the couple whilst Roy is in jail. Although Celestial visits him every month from Atlanta, the letters are an important way for them to keep their love alive. Just a couple of years into Roy’s sentence, however (and only 80 pages into the book), Celestial tells Roy that she can no longer go on being his wife, that they have spent longer apart than they were together, and that the situation is intolerable for her. We learn that Celestial was pregnant at the time of Roy’s trial but that they decided she should have an abortion as neither wanted their child to grow up with its father in prison. It is a metaphor for the doomed future of their marriage. Their correspondence ceases, and the remaining letters in this section are between Roy and his lawyer, Robert Banks, a family friend of Celestial’s parents, both about Roy’s appeal, which seems futile at this stage, and the status of his marriage.

This might seem the like the end of the thing. What we know about the couple at this stage is that Celestial is a strong-willed, independent woman who knows her own mind, and that Roy is proud, stubborn and conservative. The situation seems hopeless.

Roy spends five years in jail altogether, during which time he learns things about the status of African-Americans in the penal system he had no concept of before. He also, by chance, meets and shares a cell with his biological father, Walter. Also, Roy’s mother, Olive dies of lung cancer, never to see her son walk free. Eventually, Roy’s appeal succeeds and he is released, but he is by now broken, alone, his career in ruins. The remainder of the book is about Roy’s reunion with his old life, his hometown, Big Roy, and most importantly, with Celestial. Can their relationship be salvaged?

I don’t want to give any spoilers here, but I would just suggest that if you are looking for a romantic ending this book, thankfully, chooses not go (entirely!) down that route. It is a fine and up-close examination of the real human impact of judicial complacency, institutional racism, social prejudice and how some sectors of American society just get fewer life chances. It is also about a clash of values, between the more conservative older generation and the younger, educated, more metropolitan groups who assume there is equality.

This book is fascinating, beautiful, gripping and challenging and I recommend it highly.

If you have already read this book I would love to know your thoughts.

Follow my blog if you have enjoyed this review, and get regular updates on my posts. 

Facebook Reading Challenge July – “Fear of Falling” by Cath Staincliffe

The start of the month is rolling around with alarming regularity! It does not seem four weeks since I was setting June’s title (Tayari Jones’s “An American Marriage”) – which I still haven’t finished by the way. I’ve had a very busy few months and this has seriously curtailed my reading time. I try to read for an hour every day, which means I get through one and a bit books a week, and I find this is by far the best way for me to relax and re-energise. It also gets me out of ‘doing’ mode and into ‘creative thinking’ mode – a must for the writing side of my life. The focus of recent weeks, however, has been very much about ‘doing’ and early summer is usually a time when I know I’m not going to have much writing time. This blog has suffered too….

Fear of Falling imgHowever, the full diary will be emptying out a little as this month progresses, so I’m hopeful I’ll be able to restore my daily reading hour. My selection for the Facebook Reading Challenge this month will also help. The theme is contemporary crime fiction and I’ve chosen the latest book by north-west (England) crime writer Cath Staincliffe, Fear of Fallling, which was published last year. I met Cath at a writer’s conference a couple of years ago and she was such a lovely, warm, down to earth person that she really inspired me to think that I too might be able to pursue a writing life. Crime is not usually my genre of choice, but I read a couple of her books, including The Girl in the Green Dress, which I reviewed on this blog, and was gripped. Cath tackles major contemporary issues fearlessly and her writing style draws you subtly into the world she creates.

Fear of Falling is about the friendship between two women Lydia and Bel who have known each other for many years. As mothers, both face challenges – Bel has a difficult relationship with her daughter Freya, while Lydia and her partner adopt after she is unable to conceive. Lydia’s daughter Chloe’s actions as a teenager place immense pressures on the relationship between the two friends.

I’m really looking forward to getting into this; recent titles I have set on the Reading Challenge have been hard-going. I’m not expecting this to be ‘light’ but I’m hoping for a page-turner to get lost in and get me back on my reading track!

 

I would love for you to join us on the reading challenge. The book is available on Kindle if you can’t get hold of a copy.

If you have enjoyed this post, I would love for you to follow my blog. Let’s also connect on social media.