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.

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