I spent years writing headlines, so I appreciate the need for a snappy eye-grabber, but this essay isn't really arguing that fiction is dead. It's arguing that well-established, university-funded literature magazines that made their bones publishing modernist fiction in mid-century America are dead or dying. These are two very different theses with wildly different repercussions for both consumers of stories and the writers who pen them.
Intuitively, as an artist whose chosen form is the short story, the idea of fewer outlets existing that may be interested in publishing my work is a bit harrowing. But then I thought about it for a minute and I just don't see this as a big deal.
It isn't so much that this essay is two years old and was written in a slightly different economic context, because let's face it, the industry isn't coming back, and if it does it won't look as it did before. And it isn't even about how the publishing industry, at least the New York-based one to which most people aspire to publish, is busy protecting its economic interests by taking more chances on memoirists and speculative authors of teen vampire romances than on more traditional literary writers. The reason I shrug my shoulders at the idea expressed in this essay is because it is written by the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, which, as far as literary magazines go, is as close to The Man as you can get. Of course, from the perspective of the author, the navel-gazing MFA graduate is the problem with his journal's diminished readership and existential crisis. There just aren't enough good stories being written! Of course! How simple this all would be if new and emerging writers didn't write like new and emerging writers but wrote instead like the writers the editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review came to know and love when he was learning to love literature.
I find this line of argument ridiculous. The problem with the big-dogs in the business of publishing short fiction, pubs like the Virginia Quarterly Review or the Paris Review or The Atlantic or any of the other titles that instantly come to mind when you think of magazines and journals that publish short fiction, is that they have transformed from experimental, cutting-edge upstarts willing to print new stories from at-the-time unknown writers into the voice of The Establishment. Granted, The Establishment in the literary journal business is a bit like the cyclops in the Land of the Blind—It's an easy place to be king. But for people like me, writers with only a few very small publication credits to their names, those journals represent either of two things, and sometimes both at once: they are either the pinnacle of the business and a sign that "you've made it" or the evil gatekeeper interested not in art but in maximizing circulation, meager as it may be, and publishing the latest story whipped off by well-known writers in need of something to do between book tours, tenure tracks, or awards acceptances. Either way, from the perspective of the emerging writer, I have no interest in realistically trying to appeal to those journals just as I have no interest in realistically trying to date Kate Upton. They're not publishing me just like she's not dating me. Not gonna happen. Better not waste my time worrying about it.
Which is a shame because people like me are also the people most likely interested in reading literary magazines that publish new and emerging writers. But instead of turning to Establishment publishers, I look to online journals or blogs or little indie publishers putting books together out of their Bushwick lofts, places that seem like they'd publish stories written by my friends and me. If I want to read a Jonathan Franzen or Gary Shteyngart story, I'll just go buy one of their books. I don't need to The New Yorker to remind me how brilliant it is in the process. To me, the literary magazine is only useful if it's fresh and new, as long as it has nothing to lose. When they have nothing to lose, they can take chances on writers no one has heard of writing stories no one may want to read. That's what art is about. It's not about selling copies. That happens afterward, and as soon as it does, if you want to stay relevant, you need to forget about the copies you sold and remember what made you get into the business in the first place.
In short, if places like the Virginia Quarterly Review and its ilk are dead, then they've killed themselves. Instead of staying true to their missions of publishing new, local authors, they all fight for the privilege of publishing authors who don't need them or their niche readerships. Either that or they complain no one is writing exactly like those already well-known writers. To put it bluntly, they're just as guilty of navel-gazing their own inner circles as the MFA products they seem to so willfully disdain, which is what it feels like when I read essays like this. If I were running the Virginia Quarterly Review or any of these other biggish journals, I'd refocus the magazines on publishing new writers and new writers alone. I'd then market my product to new writers in an effort to create a sense of community between the book and the young, developing talents I rely on for my survival.
I think that strategy would go a lot further than the one that whines about young writers not writing stories I want to read, because I know that the next great story is going to be written by a writer writing what he or she wants to read. And that writer shouldn't care about me.