reading vs writing 01.16.2010, 7:31 PM
posted by dan visel
Ted Genoways, the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, has an essay up at Mother Jones with the alarmist title "The Death of Fiction?": he points out, to the surprise of nobody, I expect, that the magazine component of the fiction industry is in bad shape right now. He examines the systemic failure that brought us here: part of the problem is the over-supply of reading. The way that we find interesting writing has changed, and we can more easily find interesting content without reading literary journals than was possible twenty years ago. Another is the over-supply of writers: over the past two decades universities have rightly seen adding MFA programs as cash cows, as most students pay full price. When creative writing programs produce, as he suggests, 60,000 new writers a decade, this has the added benefit for the universities of creating a steady stream of writing instructors willing to serve as adjuncts; a huge supply of competition means that they don't need to be paid very much. There's a labor problem here: the universities have given their students the misleading idea that writing fiction can be a sustainable career when they have a better chance of supporting themselves by buying scratch tickets. It's an unfortunate situation; when this is combined with the decline of paying outlets for fiction, it's easy to project, as he suggests, the death of writing fiction as a paid pursuit.
It's worth reading this in conjunction with a post on the Virginia Quarterly Review's blog, which states the problem more baldly, pointing out an imbalance between readers and writers:
Here at VQR we currently have more than ten times as many submitters each year as we have subscribers. And there's very, very little overlap. We know--we've checked. So there's an ever-growing number of people writing and submitting fiction, but there's an ever-dwindling number of people reading the best journals that publish it.
We tend to assume that there's an economic balance between reading and writing: that reading must necessarily pay for writing, as credits must balance debits in double-entry bookkeeping. Certainly this is what the author of the VQR blog post is doing by suggesting that it's unnatural for the number of submitters to exceed the number of subscribers. It's hard to fault them for stating this relationship in financial terms: it's in a publisher's interest for a publication to make money. But this is a assumption that's worth unpacking.
This is a model nominally worked in the print era: ads and subscriber revenue paid enough that journals could be printed and that writers could be paid. This model, however, doesn't scale to the web: web advertising works for pages that appeal to the lowest common denominator (celebrity gossip, mesothelioma) and can thus attract huge numbers of page views and advertising dollars. It won't work for something that's only going to attract 2000 viewers, no matter how influential those visitors are. The economics of the web (as it presently functions) favor linkbait rather than quality: the incentives are different than we had in a print-centered world. And realistically: it's hard for readers to justify paying for content in a world suffused with free content.
Yet, as the VQR's submission numbers indicate, we have an urge to believe that we might be the exception. Writers will write, and hope to get paid for it; like lottery players, they know the odds aren't in their favor, but they imagine that they might get lucky, that they're outside the same economic processes in which they participate as readers. State lotteries do have the virtue of funding education; it's hard to know what good comes of this.
The problem here is that we tend to think of cultural production in economic terms. Historically, the book has been terrific at spreading ideas; however, as a vehicle for getting creators paid, its record isn't the best. An example: if I go into a book store and buy a copy of Tristram Shandy, we can be sure that Laurence Sterne isn't making any money off the deal because he's dead; if I buy a book of T. S. Eliot's, he won't get anything as he's been dead since 1965, but his ancient widow might be paid; if I buy a book by a living author, there's the off chance that she might be paid, but not if I'm buying it used. In all these cases, my objective as a reader might be fulfilled: I get the book that I want, and, if I'm lucky, I might get something out of that book. The person that I bought the book from is presumably happy because they have my money; if I bought the book new, the publisher is happy because they're getting money. The author, however, may well be left out: my economic transaction has not been with the author.
There are ways around this: we can, for example, see it as a moral duty to buy books by authors who are still alive and who deserve money new, rather than used. We could buy books directly from authors whenever possible so that they're getting a more just cut. We need to re-conceptualize how we think about exchange and consumption. Lewis Hyde's The Gift presents one such way forward: thinking about artistic creation as something outside the economic. But that requires us to think different both as producers and consumers: maybe that's what the Internet is trying to tell us.
Posted by dan visel on January 16, 2010 7:31 PM
Rick Saenz on January 21, 2010 8:17 AM:
How about writers seeing it as their moral duty to write for free, and that of their readers merely to read? That would solve a few problems.
Drew Kupsky on January 21, 2010 10:47 AM:
...unless the writer has bills to pay.
Rick Saenz on January 21, 2010 5:20 PM:
Everyone has bills to pay. Most of them make the money to pay their bills without being paid to write. Some of those write anyway.
dan visel on January 21, 2010 6:02 PM:
I’m not trying to suggest that authors should do their work for free – the Chris Anderson argument ends up benefiting the middlemen, who are different from who the middlemen used to be, but still not the creators. I think the Lewis Hyde book is often taken as shorthand for the idea that artists shouldn’t bother to be paid, which is a misreading.
Rather, I think we need to be mindful readers: not to treat text as an object but to think of it as an expression of our relation with another person, the author. It’s that relationship that’s important. We have plenty of texts: we have too many texts, in fact, which tends to devalue the individual work, the individual voice. I think the way around this is to re-conceptualize our relationship with the work. And I think this has to happen if what we tend to think of as the book is going to continue to matter in a world that’s full of media.
I think there’s an interesting argument to be made here for online writing: a work that’s in a network allows a more explicit relationship between the author and the reader. It’s much easier to find an author of an online work than it was to find an author of a print work; even for print works, it’s much easier now to contact their authors now that the Internet makes finding people easier.
(Of course: plenty of authors don’t want to be bothered by their readers; plenty of authors are dead; plenty of authors have readers that they would dislike.)
bowerbird on January 22, 2010 5:37 AM:
> Here at VQR we currently have
> more than ten times as many submitters
> each year as we have subscribers.
> And there's very, very little overlap.
> We know--we've checked.
> So there's an ever-growing number of
> people writing and submitting fiction,
> but there's an ever-dwindling number of
> people reading the best journals that publish it.
hey, did you see how he slipped his journal into
the category of "the best journals"? pretty slick, eh?
that guy must be a _writer_... ;+)
but hey, seriously, do you really expect anyone
(or me, for that matter) to take this guy seriously,
when he puts up his essay as a post on a _blog_?
if he had any balls, he'd be charging us for them!
but maybe the problem isn't the m.f.a. programs,
or the "over-supply of writers" (how can we tell
when we have too many of them?), but rather
that there are too darn many literary journals!
seriously, if you want me (or anyone) to be serious,
then here's the situation: our society has _serious_
problems, and our institutions (e.g., supreme court)
are just making our problems _worse_, so we need
some _imagination_ and _creativity_ (writers, can
you hear me calling you?) to get us out of this shit.
Matthew Battles on January 24, 2010 6:08 PM:
It's a terribly blinkered view. Literary journals are not the only venue for fiction, not by a long shot. Their audience *is* writers of the very kind of work that appears in their pages. And since there's no living in this kind of writing, it can hardly be surprising that there are more petitioners than subscribers; they can't afford to pay for all the journals in which they'd like to appear.
mei on January 27, 2010 11:10 PM:
I read Seth Godin's post 'Why write a book?' a few hours earlier, he covers some relevant areas to this post - as an author he has an interesting relationship with his audience and as a prominent blogger he also has solid respect for books.
Similarly to @dan visel the book not being an object but an expression of the relation with the author. Godin talks about the book as a physical 'souvenir' for the reader to allow the change/idea from the book to travel.
Helen DeWitt on April 6, 2010 10:14 PM:
I get the impression that people who teach in MFA programs inculcate a sort of learned helplessness in the students: I've just been reading a lot of interviews of Sam Lipsyte, who keeps saying, essentially, that no matter how good you are you can't expect to make a living as a writer (sc. of literary fiction), Lorrie Moore has said similar things as have some others.
Now, suppose it's really the case that 60,000 people graduate from MFA programs each decade. Let's imagine that, instead of getting the 'Even a genius can't expect to make a living' talk, every student was told to persuade one non-bookselling retail outlet or other workplace to stock five non-returnable copies of a book s/he admires. Suddenly you've got a) an extra 300,000 sales of (we'll assume) literary fiction, non-fiction or poetry (not such a big deal), and b) more importantly, 60,000 new venues for the sale of books. That's if everyone only aims for one new outlet; if everyone aims for 10 over the course of their MFA that's 600,000 venues and 3,000,000 books... (This is still a very modest aim.) This is really no different from the sort of thing grassroots fundraisers do all the time, persuading people who are well-disposed but can't devote their life to the cause to give it a little exposure in a venue with some other primary purpose.
There's no guarantee, of course, that every single student can make a living - that you can't control. What you can do is make the odds much better that the best writers of your generation can make a living; what you can also do, if you have the energy, is, how shall I put it, enlarge the habitat of the kind of writing you yourself admire. (If I were really enterprising, for instance, I might give myself a target of at least one venue a day, and persuade people to stock Calvino's Invisible Cities, Tristram Shandy, Oscar and Lucinda, Erving Goffman's Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, whatever other books I might expect to encourage readers to respond to the sorts of books I myself might want to write.)
We're used to living in vast deserts where no books are sold, because there are relatively few places that can support a store dedicated to books. We don't expect to find books on sale in a doctor's or dentist's waiting room, at the hairdresser's, at motels, at places where people have time to kill. But that's something we can change - and probably ought to change, because our educational system is not very good at introducing people to interesting writing.