Alas, I write anyhow.
In the January/February issue of Mother Jones, Virginia Quarterly Review editor Ted Genoways wrote a controversial (to some) article on literary magazines with the headline, "The Death of Fiction?" He opens by saying editing such a product, to most people, "seems... only slightly more utlitarian than making buggy whips or telegraph relays." A good line, to be sure. The question he raises is whether literary magazines have fallen so far from their heyday that they are not serving their purpose anymore, and if that's the case, where and how should we all find good writers, and writing?
I appreciate Genoways' consideration of these points as I often wonder the same as people carry on about the wonders of the internet, which provides a platform for so many more writers without us know-it-all editors getting in the way by acting as an overly restrictive gateway to publishing. As Genoways says of his role as editor, "The reality is that not everyone can be a doctor, not everyone can be a professional athlete, and not everyone can be a writer. You may be a precious snowflake, but if you can't express your individuality in sterling prose, I don't want to read about it." Here here!
Genoways then gets into some dangerous territory, by talking about the insane rise in MFA programs - "Last summer, Louis Menand tabulated that there were 822 creative writing programs. Consider this for a moment: if those programs admit even 5 to 10 new students per year, then they will cumulatively produce some 60,000 news writers in the coming decade" - alongside the severe drop in the print runs for literary magazines - "the average literary magazine now prints fewer than 1,500 copies." It seems everyone is training to be a writer, but no one is particularly bothered about being a reader. Genoways feels writers have lost perspective, unable to write about big issues that concern a large number of readers such as war, in a creative way. Instead, we are flooded with supposed eye witness accounts of things, which are far more exciting to a wide number of readers (ie, blockbuster potential, in publishing terms).
Genoways rightly says now is the time for university presidents to step forward and not just continue supporting their literary magazines, but boost the resources for their presses of all sizes so that directors and editors can make exciting, innovative choices, getting new, compelling voices out into the world without fear of being punished by the market. Writers will have to take up the challenge, working to "swear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world." This is a rallying cry to a community, not just to one segment, and it's one very necessary to raise discourse and spread intelligent, creative, challenging writing to an audience far and wide.
Suffice to say, not everyone agrees.
Jay Baron Nicorvo of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, takes Genoways to task in an article from this month's Guernica. I am not entirely convinced by Nicorvo's opening point about MFA programs producing great readers. Isn't this what a sound liberal arts undergraduate education is about? MFA programs do not seem necessary for this skill and should not be sheltered from criticism, as some of them very well may be seen as cash cows by universities looking for more degree programs to attract students. I greatly appreciate that MFA programs allow writers to find steady, paid jobs - with insurance - but Nicorvo's defense seems a bit feeble.
Regardless, Nicorvo quickly moves onto editors, jumping on Genoways point regarding the "blockbuster mentality" of publishers. Here, Nicorvo states what is often stated on this very blog: editors at commercial presses too often chase the obvious and fear the innovative. In Nicorvo's words, "They attempt to herd the mob because they no long know how to reach the reader." The system of marketing and publicizing books has changed, but commercial publishers are frozen, and just keep throwing the same crap down the line without making changes necessary to reach readers. Editors acquire for the widest possible readership for fear of losing their jobs. I have to give Nicorvo credit for using John Maynard Keynes throughout this article to damning effect. He's spot-on regarding editors at bigger houses, I'm afraid.
Nicorvo puts out the terrifying but far too accurate theory of the third degree:
In order to win, competitors are forced to select the outcome most selected by others, whatever their personal preference. “It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree, where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be.” If there’s anything that’s killing American fiction, it’s notdegrees and the institutions that bestow them. It is this: the third degree.
Youch. No one applauds winning the quest for mediocrity, but that does seem to be the game in commercial fiction.
Nicorvo, then, places the blame on feckless editors afraid to follow their own projects based on their own judgement. He doesn't even seem to feel "university-affiliated publishers" are able to really stretch their judgments, due to scarce government resources. Instead, our only hope lies in "the more limber, light-on-their-feet publishers - those not tied to state institutions funded by tax revenue."
I'm all for non-profit publishers and can certainly support Nicorvo's call to those editors at non-profit houses to buck up (remember when we used to say that rather than the ridiculously sexist "man up," or wait, is "buck" as in the deer? d'oh.). I'm not convinced that we can't match this with Genoways' call to university presidents to support literary magazines and presses at institutions so they, too, can take some risks.
So, guys, c'mon.... chill, and realize we're all in this together. Let's work together as a community of readers, editors, writers - none of which are mutually exclusive categories - and support presses of varying kinds who are taking up the cause of literary fiction - and progressive politics, if I may throw that in - and finding informed, brave, fascinating new voices that will expand all of our thinking. Onward and upward!