What Ails Literature? Some Thoughts on the Perpetual Death of Fiction
Diagnosing the death of literature is something of an annual pastime. I think it is as old as literature itself. There are always new terrible enemies at the gates, intentionally or unintentionally destroying all that is good and sacred in writing. A common one these days is the MFA degree. MFA programs, we are told, produce countless unthinking clones who are mostly incapable of producing original work.
Granting that as an MFA holder I’ve already converted to the dark side, I’ve always found this attitude quite absurd. For one thing, so many of our most exciting modern authors got MFAs or MAs—defining authors such as David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Ben Marcus, Denis Johnson as well as rising stars like Junot Diaz, Karen Russell and Wells Tower. Secondly, it seems hard to believe that two years spent studying fiction and practicing writing could really have the power to destroy an author’s literary talent or to shield them away from “the real world” for life. How traumatic are those two years supposed to be?
The simple truth is that while MFA programs pump out a lot of unoriginal writers, most writers of any stripe are unoriginal. I’ve read enough slush in my life to know that the work from non-MFA writers is no more original or fresh. In fact, non-MFA writers tend to imitate the same writers that MFA writers imitate. This is not to say any writer needs an MFA to be a great writer nor is it to say that there are not problems with the MFA system. But the standard critiques lobbed at MFA programs really don’t hold up to scrutiny.
If anything is hurting literature it is the lack of readers and over at Guernica Jay Baron Nicorvo points out that if MFA programs produce anything it is mostly readers:
There’s no guarantee that a graduate of an MFA program will go on to publish a book, but there’s no doubt that MFA programs produce more proficient readers. According to the 2007NEA survey “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence,” prose readers with graduate degrees are on average 10 percent more proficient. And readers read books.
So if MFA programs are the not the problem, what is? Nicorvo argues the problem lies with editors:
And so what do editors do? They cling to what’s working, if not working well—blockbusters. The dominant, dysfunctional business model for movies has been adapted for books.
Editors might actually be the right target for Nicorvo, because the real problem, as he illustrates, is actually the big publishing system that forces editors to play this game:
At commercial publishers, blockbuster books pay the bills and earn the promotions, and so editors, if they want to keep their jobs, acquire for the mass market. If you pay attention to who’s coming and going at the commercial publishers—and there’s a hell of a lot more going than coming—the business comes to seem like a game of musical chairs. When the music stops, the editor who isn’t on the acquiring end of a New York Times bestseller—Poor Little Bitch Girl, anyone?—is left without a desk chair.
It is hard not to feel that this practice is damaging to literature. For one thing, most of our great writers were not instant hits. They took time to develop their style and voice. But in this publishing environment, publishers can’t afford to develop writers. They need instant hits and writers with poor sales get dropped. Nicorvo doesn’t really offer any solutions to the problem, but hopes the current crises in publishing will bring about a restructuring itself.
Perhaps this is already taking place. Indie publishers like McSweeney’s, Tin House and Dalkey Archive have been growing in both popularity and quality. Book publishing is starting to turn to the system music turned into in the 90s, where bands would forge their early works on indie labels then, if big enough, would often jump ship (or sell out, many would say) to major labels. This may not be the ideal situation, but at lest someone is still publishing the important contemporary works that big publishers are unable or unwilling to.
Nicorvo frames his essay as a response to “The Death of Fiction” by Ted Genoways (editor of Virginia Quarterly Review), a recent article in Mother Jones. Genoways’s focus is more on literary magazines than publishing houses. He notes the saddening decline in readership for literary magazines as well as universities’ new willingness to shut them down. I like a lot of what Genoways has to say and I think he is correct that, for frankly not that much money, some universities could really make an impact by committing to their magazines:
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.
Genoways puts a lot of blame on the writers. Mainly, he thinks that they avoid the social and political issues of our day which has made them irrelevant to the public. For example, he correctly notes that not many modern writers have dealt with our wars in Iraq. I think such fiction is important, but I have a really hard time believing that this has anything to do with the decline in readership that he laments. Let’s face it, reading has been shrinking because it has more competition. People haven’t stopped reading literary fiction to read in-depth war journalism, they’ve stopped reading to go watch films, play video games, read blogs or watch YouTube.
I would argue that if there is a problem with contemporary literary writing, it is that it is too boring. There is a reason that thrillers, crime novels, young adult fantasy and horror top the bestseller lists. If anything, the complaint I hear from readers is that literary fiction is if anything “too PC” and too concerned with social and political issues. My own personal opinion on that work aside—I do think such work is important—it does not seem like the type of work that will make someone read a book instead of watch Avatar.
Writing can be both beautifully written and interesting, but much of modern literary writing seems to have wanted to chuck away anything that felt like genre. Luckily, I do think the literary world has become more interested in recent years to work that is more exciting on a concept or plot level (as well as the sentence), which is why writers like Michael Chabon, Cormac McCarthy and Jonathan Lethem are known amongst average readers.
What Genoways does not mention, however, is the fault that editors play here. The fact is, most literary magazines do not try very hard to define themselves in any way. They mostly publish the same range of work from the same writers in almost the exact same format…hell most even have the same name (The [location] Review). It is no surprise to me that the magazine most devoted to standing out, Mcsweeney’s, quickly became the most famous literary magazine (The New Yorker and Harper’s are a different sort of magazine).
When we started Gigantic we put a lot of effort into our design, literary aesthetic and concept and I think people took notice much more than they would have if we looked and read like every other magazine. Or look at how a simple yet unique concept made One Story instantly known in the lit world.
If a literary magazine is going to cost as much as a novel, it should feel as permanent. You should want to keep it on your shelf next to your other favorite books. How many magazines achieve that? There are a few that do (NOON, McSweeney’s, Tin House, A Public Space or Genoways’s own VQR are all good examples) but far too many magazines feel completely disposable. One issue isn’t distinguished from the next and one magazine isn’t distinguishable from another.
Ultimately everyone involved, from writers and editors to publishers and readers, could probably take some blame. Still, I’m not convinced fiction is in the worst state. There is a lot of innovative work going on from different magazines and publishers and the quality of the best work produced today strikes me as plenty high. Things seem to be changing in publishing, but there is a chance it is for the better. We will have to wait and see.
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