Where have all the novels gone?

2009 was a bumper crop for fall fiction. This year, the big names are in short supply.
Sarah Weinman
Getty Images; iStock; Andrew Tolson/ Photo Illustration by Adam Cholewa

The tradition in publishing is that serious fiction and the fall season go together like horses and carriages. Want to promote the latest thriller? Save it for the summer. Have a debut novel to push? Try the spring, so the big guns won’t crowd it out. But at a time when publishing tropes are vanishing faster than you can say e-book, holding back the most prestigious titles for the window between Labour Day and Christmas may be on the way out.

Granted, very few fall seasonal crops could be as bountiful as last year’s, which featured new books by awards regulars such as Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, A.S. Byatt, Jonathan Lethem and John Irving. By comparison, this year’s slate seems a bit thin. There’s another by Philip Roth (who produces novels at an annual rate these days), and new fiction from Salman Rushdie, Sara Gruen and Michael Cunningham. But the BookExpo America trade show emphasized potential summer hits—and newspaper preview stories are concentrating on 2011 non-fiction. What happened to fall fiction?

Increasingly, there’s been a blurring of seasonal lines. “Fall fiction is a misnomer now,” said Sam Hiyate, a Toronto literary agent with the Rights Factory. “Publishers used to count on 80 per cent of their [fiction] sales coming in the fall, but a few years ago a survey showed the number has dropped to less than 50 per cent.”

Consider that the most talked-about book of the fall is Jonathan Franzen’s No. 1 bestseller Freedom, his first novel since The Corrections stormed its way to commercial and controversial success nine years ago. The conversation online and off has been so deafening for so many weeks, it’s easy to forget the book was only published on Aug. 31—which technically still counts as the summer season.

In fact, those hot and humid days were kind to literary fiction, both from heavyweights and newcomers: David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (June), Gary Shteyngart’s dystopian satire Super Sad True Love Story (July), and Aimee Bender’s fantastical The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which outperformed expectations by selling well for weeks after its June release. Even Yann Martel’s Beatrice & Virgil, a natural for a fall release, was instead published—to disappointing sales and mixed reviews—in April.

Nevertheless, a bias lingers: if it’s published after Labour Day, it must be worthy. And that might allow otherwise overlooked titles to stand out this fall. Ben McNally, proprietor of Toronto independent bookstore Ben McNally Books, is excited about what he views as a “bumper crop” of fiction titles. He points to the Booker-shortlisted Room by London, Ont.-based Emma Donoghue, as a potentially “massive book,” even if the dark subject matter—growing up in captivity, the child of a kidnapped woman—may make “the content rough for mainstream audiences.” Other Canadian authors McNally is particularly keen on include stalwarts like Alissa York and Camilla Gibb as well as French-Canadian writer Dominique Fortier, whose historical novel On the Proper Use of Stars is based on the Franklin Expedition.

Erin Balser, a writer and literary critic with Torontoist and, points to How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti, author of experimental fiction such as Ticknor and The Middle Stories, as a key fall title. “This explorative autobiography fictional thing—seriously, read the description—should be as honest, hilarious and original as her past work and a must-read for twentysomething gals trying to make their way in the world, such as myself,” Balser explained.

But one potential big booster of fall fiction, who might have been able to shine a light on an underrated title, has instead gone with the consensus. On Sept. 17, Oprah Winfrey announced her 64th book club pick would be Franzen’s new novel. It’s a fitting, ironic twist to choose Franzen again, considering how his public hand-wringing in 2001—over concern that Oprah might scare off male readers by picking The Corrections—led to his subsequent disinvitation. But the pick, which may be Oprah’s last since the show ends production next year, solidifies the idea that these days, there’s room in the marketplace for only one big fall-fiction title.