Saturday, January 30, 2010

Literature Has Died, Again

I’m so weary of the “fiction is dead,” the ‘poetry is dead” statements. I mean how many times have their deaths been announced? Here's the latest version by Ted Genoway in "Mother Jones." Sure, given the dearth of literary criticism, telling the dross from gold is difficult. Sure, given the plethora of small press publishers, do-it-yourself publishing, online publishing, e-readers and downloadable copy, it feels as though print publishing, whether in literary mags or by traditional publishing houses, is on the wane. But more books are being published than ever, more fiction, more poetry. Moreoever, I live in Israel, so I read a lot online and there is some amazing work being offered through that medium. Think of Narrative, Pedestal, Identity Theory, Stirring, Eclectica, Failbetter, and the list goes on. Most print literary mags are also publishing, at least selectively, online. By the way, The New Republic just launched a really fabulous book review site called “The Book” online. As to the statement in Genoway's article, “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.” I also find much of what Tony Hoagland calls “the fear of narrative and the skittery poem (or story)” uninteresting, but I have only to turn to online sources Guernica, Words Without Borders, Poets Against War, Three Percent, International PEN, to find writing that looks behind the belly button to reflect the broader world including politics, the environment, international affairs.

It has always been tough for writers, especially emerging writers, to make a living writing. No one has figured out yet how to make the online model profitable and I’m sure that e-readers are going to push literature price points down further. Of course that’s the same concern raised when Gutenberg made printing pluralistic. Which brings me to the complaint raised in the article (as if I haven’t heard this one before) regarding the explosion of MFA programs—822 in the US alone. Well, all I have to say is, Thank God! Even if 80% of MFA graduates no longer write much at all five years after graduation, they are, I believe, more discerning readers and consume more literature. We certainly can’t rely on primary and even secondary education for that. And think of all the fabulous writers receiving decent paychecks at their expense.

I too mourn the loss of niche bookstores, the decision by many mainstream mags to eliminate fiction and poetry from their pages, the shaky financial situation of publishers, large and small, but I also believe that the technological shift represented by online publishing, printing, the literary communities created, are no less important than was Gutenberg’s printing press. Though the speed of the revolution has accelerated. Even ten years ago, this was not our conversation. I guess I am an optimist. I believe fiction and poetry, good and bad, will continue. As I wrote in my last blog, stories and poetry have the power to save your life. Where else will we turn?


  1. No kidding--the death of literature, the death of fiction, and most especially the death of poetry, are predicted on a regular basis, just as regular as the crying out against the increasing disappearance of precise language and good grammar. Most of the time, the people offering these predictions and declarations are folks who have somehow been less than scintillating in their own writing or who have failed to "make it" in some fashion or another, as if gaining notoriety or a chunk of change were at all the same thing as writing something worth reading, something beautiful.

  2. Perhaps. But finding the something worth reading, something beautiful, means wading through a lot of shlock.