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So, What's Really Killing Fiction?

You may have already seen this essay by Ted Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, blaming too many MFA programs and their “navel-gazing” writers for the sorry state of fiction these days:

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.

Now, Jay Baron Nicorvo takes on Genoways in Guernica, defending writing programs:

If fiction is indeed faltering, the university system isn’t at fault, nor are the navel-gazing writers who come out of it. […] What MFA programs do graduate are people who have mastered some of the uses of written English. And while this mastery might not be the most lucrative skill set, I would argue that it is the skill most widely applicable to making an honest living. Words are everywhere. If you can manage them well, chances are there’s a job for you, even in this economy.

The real culprits, Nicorvo argues, are quite different:

[Editors] attempt to herd the mob because they no longer know how to reach the reader. […] New media is the internet, and publicity and marketing departments have little central control over the flow of information. Amateur reviews of a book on Amazon are as important if not more so than the professional assessments in Publishers Weekly. And so what do editors do? They cling to what’s working, if not working well—blockbusters. The dominant, dysfunctional business model for movies has been adapted for books. […]

If there’s anything that’s killing American fiction, it’s not MFA degrees and the institutions that bestow them. It is this: the third degree.

Editors at large houses, like investment bankers at big banks, have for some time been acquiring from the third degree. They no longer acquire according to their tastes—they’re lucky if they can even distinguish their tastes from what their bosses and the bottom line demand. Because editors can’t know which books average opinion genuinely thinks are the best, not until said books climb the bestseller lists or make the shortlist for one of the few major awards, editors are left to anticipate anticipations.

Genoways isn’t totally wrong—there is plenty of self-centered fiction out there. But Nicorvo’s right, too: it’s hard for good work to get out there if editors won’t take a risk on it. Writers may need to “stop being so damned dainty and polite” and “treat writing like [their] lifeblood instead of [their] livelihood,” as Genoways puts it. But so do editors.

At least we know the fight over what’s killing fiction is alive and well.

Join the Discussion

  • I think both Genoways and Nicorvo make good points, but neither offers a real solution. Genoways is right “that writers need to venture out from under the protective wing of academia” and Nicorvo is right about the economics of publishing and its hapless editors. I didn’t get the impression that Genoways was blaming MFA programs, but rather that he was imploring university presidents to shell out more money for literary magazines. That is his vested interest as a review editor, but I don’t think his strategy would be effective for improving the fiction scene. Nicorvo is likewise naive to believe that corporate editors, given encouragement, can somehow buck the system and start publishing qualitatively better fiction.

    As an old fogy, I’ll give you my general take on college and the need to generate an income. During my undergraduate years, I didn’t care at all about money, thought that economics majors were idiots, and majored in philosophy. I viewed and still view that period as one in which I developed aesthetic appreciations that create a richer life. Of course, I ended up studying printing and business later and was poor for a few years, but I’ve always ranked aesthetics over money. Now that I’m retired, I feel as if I’m suddenly a college student again, and the decades of money grubbing were just a bad dream. The only difference between then and now is that the economic prospects for those with impractical degrees are probably somewhat worse than they were in 1972. So look for a program that offers a dual MFA-RN degree, or something of the sort. The Poetics of Thrombocytopenia?

  • Great stuff. I’ve had my suspicions about fiction being underwritten somewhat, or watered down? but hey, guys, I still love the imaginative stuff. I mean, really getting carried away by what is considered true fiction.
    No icing, no extra dressing, none of that hidden meaning stuff. Just plain good old fiction as a story told and heard!

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