In the Internet age, everyone is a poet, a blogger, an e-mailer. More than 800 MFA programs around the country pump out a steady supply of newly minted wordsmiths. The death of literature, it would seem, has been greatly exaggerated. But in Mother Jones, Ted Genoways, the editor of the literary journal Virginia Quarterly Review, provides reason for pause.
When everyone’s a writer, no one’s a reader—at least to judge from the state of American literary journals.
In these days of academic belt-tightening, literary journals, which proliferated on campuses in the last few decades, have become easy targets. Standard-bearers such as TriQuarterly Review, New England Review, and Southern Review have seen their budgets and staffs slashed or are threatened with elimination altogether if they don’t break even.
In their heyday half a century ago, Genoways notes, university-based literary journals were vital forums for serious fiction and public debate. “Consider this: When Wilbur Cross was elected governor of Connecticut in 1930, an unlikely Democratic victor in an overwhelmingly Republican state, his principal qualification was his nearly 20 years as editor of Yale Review.”
The fact is that no one reads such journals now, Genoways says. The average literary journal prints fewer than 1,500 copies. Yet the volume of submissions to these publications has exploded. In a blog posting on Virginia Quarterly Review’s own Web site after Genoways published his essay, the magazine’s editors noted that every year 10 times as many people submit to the magazine as subscribe to it. “And there’s very, very little overlap. We know—we've checked.”
Writers know there’s no audience for what they do—many of them aren't reading the stuff themselves—so, writes Genoways, they “have become less and less interested in reaching out to readers—and less and less encouraged by their teachers to try.” The echo chamber has had an effect. Major magazines that once regularly published fiction have ceased to do so—The New Yorker and Harper’s being the exceptions. “One would think that the rapid eviction of literature from the pages of commercial magazines would have come as a tremendous boon to lit mags. . . . But the less commercially viable fiction became, the less it seemed to concern itself with its audience, which in turn made it less commercial, until, like a dying star, it seems on the verge of implosion.” As evidence that fiction has ceased to concern itself with things that matter, he notes the dearth of fiction written about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; journalists and war vet memoirists have taken up the publishing slack.
Genoways proposes a new era of invigorated literary journals. “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.” But that can only work if young writers “swear off navel gazing” and “write something we might want to read.”
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