Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Reasons People Think Fiction is Dead

It is not new to argue that fiction, or literature in general, is dying, but it does seem to be an especially popular argument of late. There's Ted Genoways crying the murder of university publishing, there's Lee Siegel lamenting the lack of pushback from antsy revolutionaries, there's Garrison Keillor apologizing to us for the gatekeeperless new world we find ourselves publishing in. Despite their different takes on our impending cultural doom, it's clear that they're all worried about some pretty similar things. Foremost among them is that writers who want to publish aren't publishing in the same ways; they aren't adhering to some of the same systems and etiquettes. And one of the most entrenched etiquettes in the publishing world is to subscribe to those magazines you want to submit to. This is supposed to serve a pragmatic function--how do you decide where to submit if you haven't read enough to see where your work might fit--but more pressing for the heralds of the apocalypse is the aspect of tradition. The idea is that literary magazines provide the service of publishing writers; thus, writers should support the magazines that support them.

The idea isn't bad on its face, but it is short-sighted. It places the onus on writers, submitters in particular, to provide the capital for their own mechanism of getting read. Not writers in general--people who enjoy the craft, but may not write or like the kind of writing that gets published in Magazine X--and not other kinds of readers, readers who perhaps don't have anything invested personally in the publication but would like to support others' writing. At the heart of the worry, then, that writers aren't reading the journals they submit to is a misconception that the writing population for literary journals and the reading population for those journals is a perfect or near-perfect overlap.

The day when this held true, though, was not one in which writers were simply big-hearted enough to buy up all the literary reading. Instead, the group of people who were reading was largely the same as the group of people who were writing. T.S. Eliot, a father of the modern literary magazine, did not come to writing by the grace of a Muse or sheer farmboy gumption, but by having access to poetry throughout his time in the academy, at Harvard, at the Sorbonne, and at Oxford. Access to literacy and institutions of higher learning was the primary pathway toward any involvement in the arts; a child who never went past fifth grade, eighth grade, even twelfth grade was significantly less likely to encounter the kind of poetry that Eliot and his contemporaries would have had access to. I don't suggest that those fearing the end of literature are actually longing for the days when access to literacy was limited to the privileged classes. I'd just argue that their fears stem from a narrow scope of literary history and the role of the literary magazine within that history. I have to wonder if the perceptions of a cataclysm on the horizon is based partly on a span of literary history that is characterized by, first, increased educational access and second, burgeoning recognition for American literature in the 1950s and 1960s.

Not only did public access to higher education become more widespread post-World War II, but more people than ever could afford it, and would have been more likely than non-collegians to keep up the literary reading habits afterward (in fact, they still are, though those numbers are dropping--see the NEA study below). I would suggest that even now, the idea of being a professional writer seldom really develops before college--there are generally few examples for kids to look to in and around their schools for professionals in the literary arts, whereas in college you'll find lit professors (not catch-all "English teachers"), visiting writers series, creative writing teachers, perhaps MFA programs or artists-in-residence. Simply having access to people who spend the bulk of their time reading, writing, and publishing can put the idea of being a literary professional in your head. Writers who grew up in the days in which such positions were being added and cultivated within the university may have a skewed perception of the novelty, the specialness and academic/cultural desirability of writers. Where once were few, there are now many. Seen with a short view, this might seem to indicate that the field has spread too far (hence the bellyaching about too many MFA programs, too many MFAs). Coupled with new ways to publish, the literary world seems suddenly unwieldy, overpopulated, less special. One way of remaining special is to enforce the old methods and the old transactions. Money for opportunity, whether it's opportunity to learn or opportunity to publish--a time-honored formula, to be sure, and one that provided a way of stabilizing the pool of writers.

Another historical marker that can help explain the fear of literary death is the fact that American literature was largely ignored as a subject of academic and critical study until after World War I, when departments started adding it to the college curriculum. Writers coming of age in such a climate and in the years afterward, when American literature came to be considered a necessary part of any decent English department, may have the attitude that American literature was thriving and now is not, seeing as it was at the pinnacle of its public and academic recognition. Moreover, since this recognition at the academic level was primarily upheld by university support of and public donations to literary magazines, these writers are more likely to see literary magazines as centerpieces of a literary culture. In reality, the literary magazine as a persistent, rather than a transient, source of culture was only the state of things for 30, 40 years--literary magazines in their more-or-less current form have only been around for a century or so, and most lasted no more than three years. Most frustrating for me is when these fearmongers lament the loss of writers the likes of Hawthorne, Whitman, Melville should the literary journals and other traditional gatekeepers fail or be forced to change. The literary systems that undergirded most of the canonized American authors were immensely different from the journal system we know now. Those authors came to us by other means, under other circumstances, and there's nothing to say that our writing will suffer now that the circumstances have changed.

It's not that there is nothing for publishers to worry about. People are reading less, it's true. The NEA has compiled stats indicating that readership is dropping across the board, across age levels, and within households. This is, in many ways, hardly anything to be surprised about. More of a household's entertainment budget is going toward TV, Internet, movies, and so forth; coupled with a recession, this means less money for books. The more pressing part, and the problem the Chicken Littles might better focus on when they beg for more readers, is why people are reading literature less for pleasure across the board, and how literary magazines can revive that pleasure again.

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