Friday, March 16, 2012

The Death of Fiction? (The Death of Racism, Classism, and Elitism in Publication) /Boohoo.

I admit having a reaction of shock and disgust to Mother Jones's publication of Ted Genoway's "The Death of Fiction?" My previous encounters with the Mother Jones site have usually proved rewarding and insightful. However, this article radically changes my stance. I perceive their willingness to foster this article as indicative of alignment with the ideas presented in it, a way of sanctioning an elitist perspective.

I'm going to try to remain coherent and as diplomatic as possible in my critique of this article, but frankly I promise nothing. I think that the beliefs about literature that Genoway espouses are dated and traditional to a fault. In the paragraphs that follow, I will present my reading of Genoway's work as a dialogue between myself and the text.

In the first paragraph Genoway introduces his topic through an anecdote about how people react to his profession -- his status as an editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. He explains, through generalization, that some people (of an unidentified demographic or particular class/race/age bracket) fail to take what he perceives is the appropriate amount of interest in his profession. The way he describes their reaction implies that he expects he, and his job position, should be recognized as valorous or impressive.

 To this, I would argue that -I- am impressed when I meet someone with a job in publishing, having experienced the difficulty of breaking into the industry, and knowing how difficult it is to be published in an acclaimed literary review. I have an education that impresses upon me I MUST BE PUBLISHED IN SOME LITERATURE REVIEW, otherwise I will lack competitive edge when I pursue my teaching career at a university.

  However, 18 year old Tammy who works at the grocery store and spends more time on her Kindle reading commercial fiction may not have a similarly awed response to Genoway's overwhelmingly all powerful position. Shame on her. Tammy probably lacks exposure to the intricacies of publication and what it means to burgeoning writers. REALLY THOUGH, who could blame her? Today, literature lives in her computer, her blog, her Amazon ebooks, on her iphone. Tammy, and everyone else in the United States middle class, has more access to literature than ever before. Tammy probably doesn't even need a formal education in literary tropes to appreciate, value, and understand that which she chooses to read. It seems as though Genoway's initial argument-- that his profession lacks recognition, stems from an insecurity that he is no longer part of the social elite.

I have no sympathy for him.

First and foremost, everyone reads for different reasons. Some may read purely for entertainment, while others read to understand another life perspective, another social situation. Purposes for reading are exactly as varied as the people who read. I barely read literary journals because for the most part, I understand them to contain much of the earlier work of authors who will later go on to continue and thus publish more widely, or will fade into obscurity and pursue something else. Literary journals also contain shorter works from multiple authors. I prefer to read collections on a theme. Additionally, the world around me is rife with texts whose interests reflect my own, and I can seek them out. I'm not dependent on university publications to direct my search. Also, I have a biased opinion of most lit journals. It is my feeling that their primary function is to bolster the confidence of new writers, as well as provide a document for future employment demonstrating that faculty or visiting writers have been published and are therefore credible. Its a cog in a machine, to me. However, in my undergraduate career, literary magazines organized under a specific purpose were very exciting, because it was a testament to the value of our community and what we were capable of producing. I can appreciate literary journals, but I don't often actively pursue them.

What Genoway is really writing about, it seems, is his dissatisfaction with a shift in what is considered valuable to society. He explains that writers have a responsibility to the WORLD, as if all contemporary fiction is purely self involved -- and furthermore, that involvement with oneself cannot possibly reflect a particular worldview. Moreover, the claim that fiction writers should turn their eyes on the world implies that a single voice can effectively speak for the experience of the world at large, which is absolutely untrue. This entire article smacks of condescension and elitism. What Genoway is describing here is NOT the "Death of fiction" but more accurately the DEATH of priveleging a singular voice (which, by looking at the examples he uses in the text, is ostensibly male). He seems to be disappointed that literary journals have relented in their rigid gatekeeping status and permitted the emergence of trans, queer and feminist writers. It seems that to Genoway, permitting new voices a space in which to breathe is somehow encroaching too much on the space which he has claimed for people who are "good" writers.

Again, Genoway is working under the assumption that there is ONE singular "good" and ONE reason to write, and ONE reason to be published. He mourns the death of hierarchy. I, however, celebrate all of the things that Genoway bemoans. A cultural Polylogue trumps the elite world of university publications any day.

Because "good" is so variable -- (for me, it means equal representation of gender, sensitivity toward matters of race, art that recognizes feminism, etc/ while for others it might mean exclusivity and representations of traditional power structures) I think it's very important for DIN to consider the motivation or message or purpose or function of our publication. A journal that has a mission, and then publishes work that reflects that mission, is smarter, more valuable, and more influential than deciding ALL THINGS MUST BE WHAT I HAVE DETERMINED AS GOOD (Genoway's stance).


  1. Word up, Nohner. This was basically my take on this article, though I may have presented it slightly differently in my critique of this article. Whatever the specifics, I think most people read this article and want to destroy the author for being a pretentious tool.

    I think it's interesting, though, objectively to see how disdainfully we look at these gatekeepers. Because while I totally hate this guy, I would find his accepting of my work to be extraordinarily gratifying. In that way, speaking personally, I'm not as much of a badass as I'd like to believe. If I hated him and his class as much as I feel I do, I wouldn't care so much. But I do. I'm curious if most writers and artists struggling to break through feel similarly.

  2. Great post! I actually read something a few months ago (I wish I could remember the source or who posted it on Facebook) about how shameful it was that university literature departments were abandoning the classics in order to "be liberal" and promote political correctness. I was furious because of the insinuation that adding diversity to the literary canon is somehow a mere political act and not inclusion of amazing literature. With the exception of V. C. Andrews (because somebody told him the books were inappropriate for teens) my Republican father never objected anything I read, and I read about different cultures, socioeconomic classes, or religions. Sorry if I'm off topic, but literary elitism bothers me.