Suspend Your Disbelief

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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.

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