Reports of the Death of Fiction Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Fiction isn’t dead or dying, and neither is the literary magazine. Maybe the academic model for supporting it is, but that’s a wholly different thing. Instead of pining for the glory days, maybe we should instead turn our attention to the great independent literary magazines, whose futures are dependent on readers, not university decisions: Try Unsaid or Hobart or Barrelhouse or New York Tyrant or Keyhole or Annalemma or any of the other great online and print magazines out there. The people editing these magazines and publishing them without drawing a salary or having institutional funding have already shown the importance they personally put on the publishing of new fiction, and their contribution to the literary community is consistently ignored by academics writing articles like this one.

So says Matt Bell in response to the debate recently opened by Ted Genoways of the Virginia Quarterly Review, which has been unfolding online for a couple of weeks now. Elsewhere, Mark Athitakis exposes the logical weaknesses of Genoways’ argument by satirically summarising it — “Postmodernism is dead, but it persists, which means nobody wants to write fiction about Iraq, which means university-based literary journals are dying, but to solve that writers need to move away from academia” — while Daniel Green turns his attention to Genoways’ unspoken assumptions about what fiction is capable of and what he believes it is supposed to do:

I actually agree with Genoways that there are too many litmags publishing too much perfunctory work, but [his claim] that these magazines have proliferated because the demand for postmodernism is so insistent seems to me patently absurd. Furthermore, there is a rather glaring contradiction between the assertion there are too many publications chasing too few readers and the attempt to help them gather a bigger audience by suggesting they change their ways, which Genoways also makes. As he himself notes, most of the excess submissions made to a journal like Virginia Quarterly Review (of which Genoways is the editor), come from writers with the desire to write but not much talent for it, and if the number of literary magazines no longer expands in order to accomodate more such writers (as they inevitably do), the perceived problem that too many litmags go unread takes care of itself.

But this reduction of readership to those with a genuine interest in serious fiction obviously wouldn’t satisfy Genoways, since presumably many writers would still avoid the “big issues.” Ultimately his argument is not with the proprietors of literary magazines or even with academe and its supposed pernicious influence, but with the present cohort of American writers whom Genoways sees as insufficiently “engaged.” He tries to cast this preference for “socially conscious writing” as a plea for writers to “reach out” to readers, but I’m not aware that large numbers of fiction readers have indicated that if only academic literary magazines would publish more such fiction they would start subscribing to them in droves. The connection Genoways sees between issues-focused fiction and larger audiences for literary magazines remains, to say the least, unexplored.

To say the least indeed; because, like so much else in Genoways’ article, the connection is dubious. Readers with a hunger for “socially conscious writing” will turn away from fiction regardless of how “engaged” it is, precisely because it fundamentally remains fiction and because the hunger for “issues” and “reality” precludes a serious toleration of and investment in anything that is by definition not real. Green also wonders whether Genoways is “suggesting that litmags convert themselves into outlets for journalism rather than fiction.” This seems to me to be essentially what Genoways is suggesting, albeit from a slightly different angle: he doesn’t want publishers to publish journalism rather than fiction so much as he calls for writers of fiction to relinquish fiction for journalism. Which is to say, ironically, that he essentially advocates the drawn-out death of the very thing whose supposedly sudden death he laments.

Fiction Dies. Again.

Ted Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, finds contemporary fiction languishing on life-support and puts forth his diagnosis on the cause of its imminent death:

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.

But in academia, supply is decoupled from demand. Beginning in [the late 1930s] and accelerating after World War II and the GI Bill, universities broadened their curricula to include what they called “creative writing.” Harvard, Yale, and Princeton began offering undergraduate writing courses. The University of Iowa proffered a Master of Fine Arts program, and its graduates went on to teach the next generation at Iowa or, more often, started other MFA programs—often founding a companion literary magazine at which students could work, learning the art of editing.

By the 1950s, young writers could apply to a dozen creative writing programs; the Beats could publish in Chicago Review, experimental writers in Black Mountain Review, internationalist writers in TriQuarterly, young Southern writers in Georgia Review and Shenandoah. All on the university dime. By the early ’70s—and with the development of inexpensive offset printing—every school seemed to have its own quarterly. Before long, the combined forces of identity politics and cheap desktop publishing gave rise to African American journals, Asian American journals, gay and lesbian journals. Graduates of creative writing programs were multiplying like tribbles.

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 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 have quoted four paragraphs from Genoways’ article, but he lost me at the end of the first. Excellent fiction, as he understands it, seems to entail nothing less than an “express[ion] [of] individuality in sterling prose.” Unfortunately, this understanding of excellence in fiction implies not only an unduly restrictive conception of what fiction in general should be, but also a knee-jerk dismissal of what fiction is able to do. Building his argument on this understanding, then, Genoways establishes and inexplicably champions a benchmark for excellence in fiction that both forecloses and pre-emptively devalues the myriad possibilities of the medium itself; he trivialises and undermines the capabilities of the very thing he wants to reinvigorate.

Fiction is capable of much, much more than what Genoways sees as its primary responsibility. I don’t doubt his argument that contemporary fiction faces an evident dearth of readers, but I can’t shake the feeling that his despair over the state of such fiction has less to do with the circumstances of its production and reception than with his reluctance to embrace those works of fiction that refuse to be contained within his own narrow horizons.

The Other Seven-Eighths of the Iceberg

At the height of his celebrity in the 1950s, Ernest Hemingway gave a now‐famous interview in which he credited the emotional power of his fiction to what he called “the principle of the iceberg.” An iceberg, he noted, floats in the Arctic with only one‐eighth of its mass above water while the greater, more potentially devastating portion hides beneath the surface and attracts our concern precisely because it is hidden. In the same way, he reasoned, the drama of a story can attract our concern if  we  are  allowed to glimpse  only  a fragment  of  visible  action that implies  an earlier, unseen experience of far greater magnitude and emotional significance. In other words, Hemingway would rarely detail a  sequence of narrative events  so that we may witness a drama, but would more often depict only the consequences of such events in a single representative scene from which we then infer the drama. In story after story, he effectively positions his readers as voyeurs eavesdropping on the aftermath of a dispute between two lovers, or as snoops lingering alongside some lonesome individual whose company we have entered by illicit means. He draws our attention to a dramatic scenario by carefully denying us a clear view of its  causes. He  concentrates our  concern on the dramatic tensions that he keeps outside the story by meticulously foregrounding their deliberate absence.

I have a short article on Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg theory and the resurgence of interest in his notorious six-word story (For sale: baby shoes, never worn) in the latest issue of Philament.

A Statement of Something Other Than Intention

First there were litblogs like Bookslut and ReadySteadyBook, largely dedicated to literary news and gossip. Then came “critblogs” like The Reading Experience and The Existence Machine, more interested in generating a substantive and sustained conversation about particular literary matters. In these pages, I too want to engage in literary discussion, but I want to engage in a different sort of discussion to what appears on both litblogs and critblogs.

I would not go so far as to make a statement of intention for this blog, but I will venture a statement of interest: I am interested in exploring not only the literary experience as a subject of conversational discourse, but also as precisely what it is: an experience. I am interested in the quotidian aspects of reading and writing; the haphazard progression from text to text; the scattershot and fragmentary nature of the daily encounter with literature.

Often, I read something and I am struck by it, but I am not struck so strongly that I feel moved to discuss it; I simply want to repeat it and share it. Often, too, I return to literature that I first read years ago and I find my memories of the text challenged in the course of re-reading, and I feel moved to account for the difference between the literature as it is and as I believed it to be. Then there are times when I stumble upon an in-progress argument about the nature of reading — particularly the nature of reading fiction — and how and why to go about it; and, always searching for and being eager to venture new answers to old questions, I just can’t help but dive in and get my hands dirty. And there are also times when, by chance, I simply read something worth sharing — something whose impact deserves explication and evaluation — and other times when I find myself, in my professional life, sharing a work of literature with others and discovering in it a certain value that I had previously never noticed.

Infinite Patience will accumulate notes on all of these elements of the literary experience. No overarching theory of literature, no underlying system for the selection of reading material. Just words in response to other words, as and when they fall before my eyes.