Does American Literature Need Saving?

In a much-linked to and discussed article at Mother Jones, Ted Genoways the editor at Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR) bemoans the closing of university-supported literary journals and what this means for fiction, specifically short fiction and poetry. He starts off with explaining how whenever someone asks him what he does for a living and he replies, how no one understands what he does or has heard of VQR. Nevermind the “woe is me” start. It’s worth a read.

He concludes by saying in part,

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.

Yes, the blogosphere is to blame, too, apparently. What is this? 2005? Right. Nevermind that it’s the blogosphere and the online world that have picked up the slack left by the book review sections of newspapers…But that’s another story altogether.

He also tells us that writers need to get out of the protection of Academia. Which is really funny, since as one person points out.

Genoways made $134,000 last year editing VQR (according to publicly available data, since he’s a public university employee), so excuse me for being a little furious at this article, especially the ending: “I’m saying that writers need to venture out from under the protective wing of academia, to put themselves and their work on the line. Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood.”

If Genoways really believed this, he’d leave the “protective wing of academia” himself, and fund and run a magazine by himself. Somehow, I don’t really see that happening.

American Literature will be saved, if it even needs saving, not by university presidents but by writers writing worthwhile books that connect with people. You could make an argument that there are plenty of novels out there doing just that.

And what does American Literature need to be saved from? The vagaries of the market? That’s always been a problem. Think Melville, Emily Dickinson, or Faulkner.

As far as the short story is concerned, it will not die as long as there are human beings with a need to tell stories. Like poetry, it will move on along with those dedicated to the form always loving it, creating it, and supporting it. I have to say that I believe poetry and short fiction, as practiced in literary journals, have both died as forms of mass entertainment. The days of Collier’s and the Saturday Evening Post have loooooong since past. I’m not sure how to change that. There have been attempts such as the slam poetry movement that have sought to reclaim poetry for the masses but with limited success.

(Something analogous to all of this might be Opera. Anything done by Puccini and before packs the houses. Sure the occasional Janacek or Britten will be met with approval. But because so many modern composers have opted for atonal music or the minimalism as characterized by Philip Glass, that operas composed in those forms will make news but do not make it into the repertoire. As a fan of melodies that stick in the head who loves Verdi and Puccini, you can pretty well guess where my sympathies lie.)

A look at history shows that poetry and the short story (along with the novel) have not been forms of mass entertainment for very long. Balzac and Dickens wrote for money in their day, which also happened to be around the time that public education started to take hold. Once you had a large number of people who could read, they could be entertained by the written word. One of the reasons the Catholic Church commissioned so many paintings was that most people couldn’t read, so pictures were a great way to get the Message of God across.

I have written short stories in the past, as you can see if you click the link on the right to The Fairview Project. Though I haven’t written any short stories in awhile because, quite frankly, I have to make myself write them. Ideas don’t just pop into my head that lend themselves to the short story form. I have to generate them myself. Normally, I tend to think and desire to work in long form; the novel. I don’t know if this is an artistic failing or not, or just how I’m wired. I’m currently shopping around the novel I’ve completed, whose working title is Chicago Time. So we’ll see soon enough.

I do enjoy reading short stories. But I do tend to read more novels. What I love about great novels is the way they can use their length to wholly envelope you in the world that’s being evoked. I’m talking from Harry Potter to The Sun Also Rises to Sacred Games to The End of Mr. Y to Cat’s Cradle and to the wonderful book I’m reading now, Then We Came to the End. This last one I find accurately captures an aspect of the world outside the protective wing of academia; the paranoia and vicissitudes of working in a contemporary office while the rounds of layoffs keep coming, and it’s told with humor and sympathy.

P.S. Some of the more thoughtful comments on the article come from writer/editor Gina Frangello. Her novel My Sister’s Continent is fantastic. Click the link for a review at Bookslut.

Update: Roxane Gay at HTMLGIANT has a smart thoughtful post on Genoway’s article.

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2 thoughts on “Does American Literature Need Saving?

  1. Good luck shopping your book around!Someone once said that the most ardent proponents of meritocracies, free markets and laissez-faire capitalism were tenured professors. Funny how that works…

  2. TR, thank you!But isn't that always who it is? Those who are mostly insulated from market forces?

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