A recent Mother Jones article by Ted Genoways, editor of Virgina Quarterly Review, suggests literature is dying because of the explosion of MFA programs and in turn, literary magazines and writers who look inward rather than outward in their storytelling. The really interesting conversation takes place in the comments where anonymous commenters and folks like Matt Bell and Gina Frangello both expand the discussion and take Genoways to task quite eloquently for his myopic and rather privileged outlook from within academia and his willful ignorance of the independent publishing community.
I have said it before but I will say it again. I remain weary of the ongoing, lofty prognostications about the death of literature, literary magazines, the printed word and so on. The conversation is getting so very tedious. Literature is dying the longest death in the history of deaths. It is amazing, really. If literature is dying, it is now time for a mercy killing so we can bury the dead, allow the dead to rest in peace, and surrender to the five stages of grief. I will never understand why magazines continue to publish articles which look backward rather than forward, in no way cover new ground or offer practical solutions that are grounded in hope rather than pessimism.
As Bell points out, Genoways makes more than $130,000 a year (state school, public information). I don’t care about his salary, nor do I begrudge him that salary and while it is a considerable sum, it is not fuck you money. I do think, however, that the number speaks to one of the biggest problems with university-affiliated literary magazines–they are often bloated with administrative costs. It is a real shame to see some of the most well-established literary magazines folding but I also think that perhaps the shelter of academia has allowed the editors of these publications to believe a great deal of money is needed to produce a great magazine. Many of the independent magazines I know, most of which are excellent publications, are able to put out 1-4 issues a year for less than $5,000 and many have the same print runs as some of the more established literary magazines. The same writers who submit to VQR and Prairie Schooner and The [insert whatever] Review also submit to smaller, lesser known magazines. In terms of quality, it can no longer be said that the best writing is exclusively being published in academic literary magazines. I don’t know that it is the academic literary magazine that is in danger as much as the academic literary editors whose salaries universities (and yes, wrongly) feel are expendable.
Back in the 1930s, magazines like the Yale Review or VQR saw maybe 500 submissions in a year; today, we receive more like 15,000. This is due partly to a shift in our culture from a society that believed in hierarchy to one that believes in a level playing field. This is good—to a point. 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.
There’s a lot of anger and bitterness in that statement. I find it a little elitist. Perhaps not everyone can be a published writer, but I find it bizarre and kind of sad to assert that not everyone can be a writer. Dream killer much? I know VQR receives a ridiculous number of submissions, but as any editor can likely attest, 14,500 of those submissions can be rejected quickly because they’re simply not good or they don’t fit the magazine’s aesthetic or they tweak an editorial peeve so really you’re dealing with 500 submissions a year. That’s a little more manageable. I think it’s all about attitude. So many editors lately seem to really resent their submission queues and are burnt out on writers. I understand the sentiment, have felt it at times, but there’s a solution for writer fatigue in academia. It’s called a sabbatical.
Then there’s a bit of math:
If those programs admit even 5 to 10 new students per year, then they will cumulatively produce some 60,000 new writers in the coming decade. Yet the average literary magazine now prints fewer than 1,500 copies. In short, no one is reading all this newly produced literature—not even the writers themselves. And with that in mind, writers have become less and less interested in reaching out to readers—and less and less encouraged by their teachers to try.
I do not know why it matters how many new writers are being produced and if we want to worry about a glut of writers, then we should probably start panicking because, as shocking as it may be to hear this, not all writers come from MFA programs so there are likely hundreds of thousands of writers out there mucking things up. Genoways is not alone in his editorial anger that only writers are reading literary magazines. It is indeed frustrating that the American public is largely disinterested in literary magazines but if, as Genoways points out, there are 60,000 new writers being produced in the next decade by MFA programs alone, that is, theoretically, more than enough readers to support the many literary magazines out there. I know writers don’t subscribe to every magazine to which they submit but I know of few writers who do not subscribe to any magazines at all.
Genoways offers some thoughts about what writers are doing wrong:
Indeed, most American writers seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues—as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism.
As an aside, I submitted a big issue story to VQR about Haiti. It was rejected last month. I know why the story was rejected, am totally cool with it but I’m just saying… these kinds of sweeping statements are inaccurate. Writers do write about big issues, all the time. Even if writers aren’t focusing on big issues, I love reading about small issues. I read to escape. I am not ignoring the wars or the goings on of the world but I don’t need fiction to educate me on world issues. Frankly, at a time like this, when I am painfully aware of the world’s tragedies, it has been reading books like Scott Mclanahan’s Stories II, for example, which is a grand grand book about small issues and in its own way also about big issues, that have helped me keep my shit together. Sometimes people don’t look outward because things suck out there.
Finally, Genoways leaves us with a prescription:
With so many newspapers and magazines closing, with so many commercial publishers looking to nonprofit models, a few bold university presidents could save American literature, reshape journalism, and maybe even rescue public discourse from the cable shout shows and the blogosphere. At the same time, young writers will have to swear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world worthy and in need of the attention of intelligent, sensitive writers. I’m not calling for more pundits—God knows we’ve got plenty. I’m saying that writers need to venture out from under the protective wing of academia, to put themselves and their work on the line. Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ’s sake, write something we might want to read.
I won’t even bother with the statement about the protective wing of academia but if Genoways is reading dainty and polite writing, he might be looking in the wrong places. If he wants non-dainty, somewhat rude writing, he might look here, and here, and here, and here, and here just to name a few magazines who consistently publish great, thought-provoking work.
For those of us who are not writer famous, writing is only about lifeblood because there is certainly no money this. Ultimately, his critique seems to be directed at a very narrow and elite segment of the writing community.
What I find most interesting is that Genoways feels that the salvation of American literature must come at the hands of the Academy. I do not think that will happen. As universities continue to slash budgets and cut costs, the university-based literary magazine will only become more endangered. That doesn’t mean that literature will die, however. It only means that the literary magazine will have to adapt and evolve and, perhaps, learn from the independent publishing community on how to passionately publish and promote excellent big and small writing without the beneficence of the university.