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.