Sunday, April 18, 2010

Writers versus Editors

I hesitate to write this post just now, as traditionally, when I have settled down to write a post on a Sunday night, no one reads it. Not Sunday night, not Monday. But here I am again, writing about something that I read Friday, no less! 2 days ago - that's years old by today's 24-hour news cycle.

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 not MFA degrees 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!


Wanda Shapiro said...


Alas, your post did not go unread, and I was glad to see someone chime in on "The Death of Fiction?" conversation. I agree with you that no segment of the industry can either be blamed or bear the brunt of the change. I took up the cause of literary fiction and it's nice to read someone is recommending supporting presses of varying kinds. In my opinion, fiction is not dying, but the industry that brings it to reader is changing and nothing can stop that. Thanks for the post. I was happy to stumble up on it this morning.

Best regards,
Wanda Shapiro

Christopher said...


You've done our blog proud with this post. It is much more level-headed than I would have been. Here's why: I think that this whole discussion is like a holding a candle to illuminate the night. I agree completely with your argument but I can't possibly imagine the set of circumstances that would need to happen institutionally-both within the academy and within publishers-that would allow this kind of change to happen.

I have hope but no optimism.

Indeed, just this morning the NY Times had a piece by Mokoto Rich which spoke directly to the issues you wrote about. Rich ran a profile of Paul "Mr. Rejection" Harding and his Goliath-slaying, Pulitzer Prize winning novel "Tinkers." In the piece Mr. Harding was careful and thoughtful in thanking all the independent people who helped him make his book a success-Bellevue Literary Press, a sales rep for Consortium, a bookstore clerk who did a rave review of it on Bookslut-but if you keep reading you soon realize that he has now left Bellevue behind and signed with Random House. Show me the money. Bellevue is left to get what it can get from this one book and the convulsive attention it is receiving right now. When it came time to "man up" (ahem) and work again with the only press who thought he had something, he went for the money. Now, I don't begrudge any author for trying to get as much as they can-it IS a job after all-but what is distressing is that the one press with the vision to recognize greatness is given a glass of water, a pat on the head, and "whadda great job you've done but we'll take it from here." They never get to fully enjoy the fruits of their labors because there is the monolithic idea that only the large publishing houses can "deliver." A man cannot live on bread alone but it is just frustrating that the industry is set up so that the smaller, independent minded presses are the minor leagues of book publishing. That stinks.

Let's be honest about current and future mindset in publishing. The "next great thing" and the "blockbuster" mentalities are so entrenched that it feels like Sisyphean task to try and convince editors and publishers to break the bonds and publish what is great. Random House wanted nothing to do with Mr. Harding or "Tinkers" when it was available to any editor with the good sense to sign it but once he starting getting some buzz, a super blurb from Marilynne Robinson, and made the Pulitzer finalist list, they snapped him up and when he won the award, Rich tells us that "within an hour of the Pulitzer announcement, Random House sent out a news release boasting of the two-book deal it had signed with Mr. Harding late in 2009." The way that last sentence reads it's like Random House is a petulant child who wants all the other kids to know that "nah, nah, nah, nah, we got him and yoooouuuu doooon't." This is the mindset in today's publishing world.

The model: an unknown writer with talent writes a book, it is passed around and, more often than not, rejected, a small press becomes interested and accepts the book for publication, notoriety comes to the author, success happens, author decides it is time to move on, the literary press with the editor with the incredible foresight and intellectual acuity loses writer to major press and major money. As long as this remains the path for the industry we are going to continue to have the "next great thing" and "blockbuster" mentality. Period. For his part, "Mr. Rejection" says “I sort of feel like I know how I got here, every step of the way,” “something like this can befall me, and it won’t be catastrophic success.” Tell that to Bellevue Literary Press.

Co-editor, Survival of the Book