On May 22, Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize, beating Ahmed Saadawi’s graphic novel and Booker prize heavyweights Han Kang and Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Flights, her winning novel, is a kaleidoscopic account of travel and human anatomy set over several centuries that chair of judges Lisa Appignanesi OBE applauded for ‘exploring matters close to the contemporary and human predicament’. Meanwhile, writing in the London Review of Books, critic Adam Mars-Jones described Tokarczuk’s prose as a ‘lucid medium in which narrative crystals grow to an ideal size, independent structures not disturbing the balance of the whole’. Tokarczuk’s work is an original, exhilarating piece of literary fiction; it confronts the subjectivity of human experience through an artistic lens.
The win comes at a moment where literary fiction is in crisis. Sales for literary fiction have slumped over the last 15 years, with the average price of both hardbacks and paperbacks falling year on year, according to a report commissioned by Arts Council England published in December 2017. Some commentators cursed the proliferation of readily available entertainment on smartphones, while others spoke of the recession’s impact on luxuries such as a £20 hardback. Either way, demand for this kind of exploratory fiction has fallen, meaning fewer people are now – unlike in the 1980s and ‘90s – able to make a living as novelists.
But why does literary fiction matter as a genre, and does the industry have any obligation to preserve it? According to a study from the New School for Social Research in New York, reading literary fiction increases empathy levels due to its heightened ‘aesthetic qualities and character development’ as opposed to genre fiction which remains limited by its ‘focus on a particular topic and reliance on relatively formulaic plots’. Ostensibly, we need literary fiction to teach us how others experience the world. We need literary fiction to develop empathy.
A Booker prize win has huge commercial impact. After Han Kang’s win in 2016 for The Vegetarian, sales for Korean literature in the UK rose dramatically, while sales for David Grossman’s title A Horse Walks into a Bar rocketed after the Israeli writer claimed the prize in 2017. Tokarczuk, despite being an award winner and bestseller in her native Poland for her eight novels and two short story collections, is relatively unknown in the UK. With two more of her works set for release in the UK in 2018 and 2019, will the buzz around Flights sustain and bring further attention to a genre badly in need of a confidence boost?
Despite literary fiction’s gloomy prognosis, there are still publishers out there willing to take a chance on the genre. Behind Tokarczuk’s win is the London-based Fitzcarraldo Editions championing literary fiction, and her translator Jennifer Croft. Croft, who will split the £50,000 award with the author, is an American translator of Polish, Ukrainian and Spanish. Meanwhile, Fitzcarraldo Editions is quietly emerging as an independent publisher with prophetic vision. With only two previous books to its name, Fitzcarraldo managed to bag the English rights to Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time mere months before the author won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, launching the unassuming London press to global prominence. Writing in Granta magazine, the founder Jacques Testard described Fitzcarraldo’s ambition: ‘to publish ambitious and innovative contemporary writing, “literary” books that explore and expand the possibilities of the form, that are innovative and imaginative in style, that tackle subjects and themes relevant to the world we live in.’ So far, so good.
Speaking on Second-Hand Time, Testard revealed ‘I had no idea whether we would be able to find an audience for the book, though I was convinced it was a masterpiece,’ an anxiety he likely would have experienced ahead of acquiring the rights to Tokarczuk’s unusual novel. But this type of writing – ambitious, introspective, daringly honest – needs to be championed, for it might just be the antidote to our rising social malaise. In 2014, Britain was voted the loneliness capital of Europe, while each week, the media seems to publish more terrifying statistics about our poor mental health. It may seem counter-intuitive, but perhaps we should put down our smartphones, our readily available entertainment, and take a chance on literary fiction. Start with Flights. You might just feel more connected.
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, £12.99