The Death of Fiction? Or Just a Change in the Landscape

Ted Genoways’ Mother Jones article on the death of fiction isn’t particularly new in its publication (from January), nor its subject manner, but it is does have some valid points and is worth looking at. Yet before I mention the good points, let me get to the tired element: too many schools graduate too many writers, be they poets or prose writers. I think this is true (it happens in other fields, so it can certainly happen in creative writing) and after a certain level of schooling I’m not sure how you can be taught to write fiction. While one of the problems he identifies is an over supply of writers who have turned inward, writing things that only other writers want to read (poetry gets this criticism all the time), he doesn’t ask if there are other reasons. What happened to the readers? Did they all turn into James Paterson swilling boobs or do they have other issues or has other media pulled them away? In many ways Genoways is making the B R Myers argument about not reaching out to readers with readable and interesting fiction.  I’m sympathetic to the criticism. There are certainly modern books I can’t stand, such as White Noise, yet I love Thomas Bernhard who is much father from White Noise in accessibility. What ever you interests, saying there is an over abundance of creative writing programs which has led to an insular, dull, and engaged literary culture is not enough. At least Genoways is savvy enough to know that it is up to the writer to get out there and connect. I wonder, though, if the last 50 years was more of an aberration and writers will be returning to working in fields that have nothing to do with literature just to make a living, like Stevens or Kafka or any number of writers before general interest magazines and latter the university made it possible to live on writing fiction. I don’t want to see it, and hopefully an iTunes model might work and save the us from the Death of Fiction.

Little wonder then that the last decade has seen ever-dwindling commercial venues for literary writers. Just 17 years ago, you could find fiction in the pages of national magazines like The Atlantic, Elle, Esquire, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, GQ, McCall’s, Mother Jones, Ms., Playboy, Redbook, and Seventeen, and in city magazines and Sunday editions like the Boston Globe Magazine, Chicago, and the Voice Literary Supplement. Not one of these venues (those that still exist) still publishes fiction on a regular basis. Oh, sure, The Atlantic still has an annual fiction issue (sold on newsstands but not sent to subscribers), and Esquire runs fiction online if it’s less than 4,000 words. But only Harper’s and The New Yorker have remained committed to the short story.

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, especially at the schools that have become safe harbors for (and de facto patrons of) writers whose works don’t sell enough to generate an income. You would expect that the loyal readers of established writers would have provided a boost in circulation to these little magazines and that universities would have seen themselves in a new light—not just promoting the enjoyment of literature but promulgating a new era of socially conscious writing in the postcommercial age. 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. Indeed, most American writers seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues—as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism.

In the midst of a war on two fronts, there has been hardly a ripple in American fiction. With the exception of a few execrable screeds—like Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (which revealed just how completely postmodernism has painted itself into a corner)—novelists and story writers alike have largely ignored the wars. Even our poets, the supposed deliverers of “news that stays news,” have been comparatively mum; Brian Turner is the only major poet to yet emerge from Iraq. In this vacuum, nonfiction has experienced a renaissance, and the publishing industry—already geared toward marketing tell-all memoirs and sweeping histories—has seized upon the eyewitness remembrances of combatants and the epic military accounts of journalists. That, combined with the blockbuster mentality of book publishing in the age of corporate conglomeration (to the point of nearly exterminating the midlist), has conspired to squash the market for new fiction.