The New Yorker’s second all-fiction issue…

is gone. That is, TNY will now publish only one all-fiction issue per year. Editor David Remnick explains that money is the reason, and this isn’t a surprise – the magazine can get a lot more in ad revenue, publishing a “world changers” issue in its place.

I haven’t hunted much around the blogosphere, but no doubt there’s much weeping and gnashing of flesh about this, among those who like the fiction TNY publishes, and – especially – among both those who’d love to publish a story in it, and those whose senses are sharpened, to look for any sign that indeed there is less and less demand, even among high-brow readers, for complex narrative content, in textual form.

I’d argue, though, that this shift shows that demand to be as strong as ever – it’s just that today’s New Yorker readers prefer non-fiction narratives, and particularly celebrity biographies. Of course part of the reason is that the New Yorker is less highbrow than it used to be, and the middlebrow demand for biographies is as strong as ever. And the high-middlebrow market, which the New Yorker has owned for decades, is eager to read this stuff too, provided the subjects are people whom they admire or recognize as having lives and goals similar to their own. Also key too, I think, is that these bios be crafted in line with their own view of how the world works, and should work – that is, these pieces need to deliver a message in keeping with the dominant secular-humanist ideology.

The New Yorker‘s audience, these days, isn’t made up of aesthetes. I think of the typical New Yorker reader as an assistant desk chief at the State Department, or a program manager at an environmentalist non-profit. The stereotypical “New Yorker short story” is targeted to them – they care about culture, and appreciate literary fiction, but given their practical bent and worldview, they can’t help but read a short story or novel as a sort of guide for living in the modern world. A “world changers” issue will be full of narratives that they find useful in just this way. And because these will be non-fiction narratives, they’ll be, for this audience, much more more compelling than the latest story by Don Delillo or Yiyun Li.

Who will write the first true Tweetfiction?

It won’t be Rick Moody. Moody’s tweetfict, the first part of which went live today on Electric Literature‘s feed, shows no feel for the form – that is, in Levi Asher’s words, it doesn’t “feel natural on Twitter… [or] reflect its setting in terms of identity and plot point as well as character-count.” It’s a text that’s been chopped up into 140-ish-character chunks, not one written so as to break naturally into same, and do so with purpose. To the extent Moody writes to the form, it’s by generating seemingly random, pseudo-aphoristic sentences that don’t seem part of any narrative.

And no wonder, given that per HTML Giant, Moody says, of his effort:

“I think my contempt for Twitter is what inspired it, initially. In general, I think the way to describe the world is to get longer not shorter. Twitter, by virtue of brevity, abdicates any responsibility where real complexity is concerned, because it forbids length. This seemed to me like a challenge, then: how to get complex in a medium that is anathema to complexity and rigor. And a challenge is always thrilling.”

So we have a writer who feels contempt for his chosen form, and is thus… doing what, exactly? Trying to show, in a piece he presumably wants us to read, that it’s impossible to write such a work? Showing that only he can write one that works? Blaming its defects on the form, while positioning himself to take credit for any strengths it might have? Hmm…

In any case, this tweetfiction doesn’t matter. What matters is that EL has given a boost to the idea that someone can write such fictions, which implies that someone could do so not just enthusiastically, but well, which in turn implies someone taking advantage of the form, rather than turning up his nose at it. Who’ll do this? I’m looking forward to finding out.

The short story (still) doesn’t need saving

“Save the short story!” is nothing but a fundraising rallying cry, raised by short-fiction publishers looking to build their subscription lists and grant base. It works, at least to a degree, because short-lit fans, writers, and editors know they’re a tiny group, see the explosion of non-print media, and the collapse of traditional publishers, and draw the logical conclusion that their beloved endeavor is threatened too. But the logical conclusion, in this case, is the wrong one. The short story is more vital than ever, with an explosion of short-fiction outlets, enabled by the rise of the Web, and dramatic fall in the price and difficulty of publishing in print.

True, nobody’s getting rich off any of this – but has anyone, really, ever? In the history of civilization, has there ever been a society in which more than a handful of artists, of any kind, have even made a living off their work? No. Indeed, with the rise of the MFA industry, and mushrooming of university-sponsored journals, jobs for serious writers and editors are more plentiful now than ever before.

So let’s enjoy this boon, rather than wringing our hands about it. And let’s also celebrate those – like Andy Hunter and his colleagues at Electric Literature – who, handwringing aside, are working to bring more great short fiction to more people, both in print and online.

Death of the midlist author

Why the death of the midlist author? This question vexes book industry insiders, and not only those quoted in the New York Mag article I just blogged, because so many houses have, for so long, made a good deal of hay from such authors – those who write book after book, one a year or so, over the course of a number of years, and whose books never sold a ton of copies, but could be counted on to sell a respectable number, every time out. And now these books aren’t selling. Of course everyone (in book publishing) cries that that the problem is that what with the ‘net, no one reads anymore, and so forth.

Are they right? No, but they’re right that no one’s reading midlist authors. Why not? Because their books aren’t good enough to stand up to the competition of new forms of reading, and, yes, other new forms of entertainment. Go to a used bookstore, pick up an old, I don’t know, Mary Morris novel, and start reading it. Most of you will put it down within a few minutes, and grab another book off the shelf, and start reading it instead. That might not have been the case fifteen years ago. Now that we know we have access to a ton more reading, and general-entertainment, options, we have less patience with fair-to-middling books. When books, and three TV networks, were all we had, well, why not buy and read a Mary Morris novel? It’s not like you had many other options, so by doing so, you ran a much lower opportunity cost than you would now.

Is television the gin of today?

So suggests Clay Shirky, in an interesting gloss on the argument that gin made the Industrial Revolution possible, by enabling the first factory workers to tolerate the wrenching switch from a rural life to an urban one. Shirky suggests that television has fulfilled the same function since World War II, basically making it possible for us to deal with all the stresses of modern life. I don’t fully agree with him—I think it’s simplistic to argue that either gin, then, or television, now, should be seen as simply an escape, and thus that its use suggests that the user must have been escaping from something horrible. This view, to me, stems from the cultural-elite prejudice that if one isn’t using one’s leisure time to improve oneself, one is giving in to “escapism,” which is unnatural, and thus indicates a need to escape from something abnormal and objectionable. But Shirky’s main point, I think, is a good one—that people have a lot of free time, and if a lot of them decide that generating knowledge for others to share is an interesting, enjoyable way to spend that time, the Web could soon be filled with countless Wikipedias, and while a lot of that stuff would be dross, a lot of it would be useful, and for it, we’d all be the wiser. Literally.

What does this have to do with lit, now? It seems to me that whatever the Quality Lit folks say, more and more people are devoting what Shirky calls their “cognitive surplus” to reading and writing fiction and poetry. Yes, it’s true that the Atlantic and Harper’s no longer run short stories every issue… But new literary journals are sprouting up all the time—a very partial list is here—and while many of them reach only a handful of readers, they do exist, and someone cares about them enough to edit them, and other someones care enough to write for them, and, presumably, also read them. Does this mean they’re good? Not at all. But this mushrooming is a sign, I think, that the efficiencies created by new technologies are creating an enormous opportunity for readers and writers of literary work, and they’re taking more and more advantage of it, to the ultimate benefit of literature.

The future of poetry

A couple of weeks ago, I was on a panel at the AWP convention with a representative of the NEA, who, by way of explaining how his agency would “save literature,” spoke about a program that gives money to municipal governments, which then use it to encourage everyone in their towns to read and discuss the same book. The effort struck me as inoffensive, if also ineffectual, and having less to do with literature than with the NEA trying to spend money in as many congressional districts as possible, and thus, presumably, buying the votes to keep its appropriations coming. But a fellow panelist leaned over to me and whispered, “God, that’s a sure way to make sure nobody ever reads a book again.” And I had to agree. Will more people read literary works if they think of them as a sort of castor oil for the brain? Hardly. Nor, Daniel Green points out, will poetry prosper by having someone—government, cultural elites, whoever—force it on those who “have to be cajoled and manipulated into noticing it.”

Are good intentions enough?

Is a book worth reading if its author’s intentions, in writing it, were good? Good, in the sense of “noble,” however one defines that term: “progressive,” “concerned,” “compassionate,” what have you. Stefan Beck raises this question in a piece on recent books by Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, and Nick Hornby. More precisely, he argues that in giving positive notices to said books, reviewers have turned a blind eye to their weaknesses, having been won over by their authors’ noble motives. Among those motives being: to aid Sudanese refugees, autistic children, and students in crummy urban public schools.

I can’t speak to the quality of these books, or the accuracy of the reviews, not having read any of them. And in truth, neither question particularly interests me. What’s interesting here is the phenomenon of authors’ intentions being advertised as a reason to buy works of literary fiction. Much non-fiction is sold this way, because much of it is advocacy, and of course this has been done for fiction titles about certain topics, To Kill a Mockingbird being the obvious example (and Eggers’s What is the what being another). But to sell non-topical literary fiction, a la what’s in the Hornby- and Smith-edited collections?

Of course intellectual and cultural elites—the market for literary fiction—tend to consider themselves morally superior to everyone else, for defending something great and good that, they think, wouldn’t survive without them. And why do these groups think this way? Because doing so confirms their elite status, and because people given to such thought strive to join them, and so dominate their membership. And of course buying literary fiction has always, for anyone who does it—I’m not exempting myself here—had something to do with wanting to show oneself to be a person who buys literary fiction. I.e. is a person of taste, discretion, breeding, and so forth. So morality and taste, for the Quality Lit crowd, have long been intertwined.

But now, I think, they’re more linked than ever, and in wondering where this comes from, I can’t help but wonder about the impact of the “circle the wagons” mentality that so many publishing types and writers seem to share. I help edit a literary journal, and in talking to people at writers’ conferences, readings, and publishing conventions, conversations often turn to “the decline of reading,” “the death of literature,” and suchlike. And quickly thereafter, those who’ve espoused on same never fail to commend me, themselves, and anyone within earshot for doing God’s work, by fighting the good fight, in heroic struggle to save the written word and higher thought. I’m exaggerating a bit—but if we’re talking about conversations that take place after everyone’s been drinking, I’m exaggerating only a very little bit. Note also in this connection that cutting-edge QualLit publishers have begun using “to buy our product is to do good” marketing strategies, and also that more and more literary writers live and work in academia, where moralistic anti-marketism and anti-hoi-polloism are dominant, and go hand in hand… And you have, I think, a recipe for the increasing moralization of not just the marketing of literary fiction, but its production as well.

How will literary writers survive the decline of print?

Over at Tech Crunch, Michael Arrington has an astute post about the economics of music—specifically, about how musicians will support themselves, now that file-sharing has undercut recorded-music sales. He argues that sooner rather than later, they’ll learn to see recordings as loss leaders, existing mainly to sell tickets to their live performances, which will be their bread-and-butter. Not surprisingly, backward-thinkers are afraid of this shift, and want to prop up the music industry by getting governments to impose a sort of preemptive file-sharing charge, qua tax, on everyone who uses an ISP; revenue from this tax would be transferred to record companies, and some of it then to musicians. Bah to that, says Arrington, and I’m with him—as he notes, this system would kill innovation and make music boring.

But what of literature? you ask, and rightly so, this blog’s topic being what it is. I think as more and more lit is disseminated electronically—to Kindles or computers or what have you—well-known literary writers will find themselves in a position similar to that of well-known musicians, now. That is, the products of their labor will be easily re-distributable, for free. And thus their royalties will evaporate, as sales of their works plummet.

How will they make a living? I can imagine that those who make money, will make most of it from rights sales. Specifically, from selling first serial rights to online journals, in exchange for some combination of upfront payment and a share of ad revenue. Once a work has been electronically available for a while, its value to a journal, as a means of attracting site visitors, will fall dramatically, since fans will be able to reproduce and distribute it themselves. But initially, if you want to read, say, that new story by T.C. Boyle, you’ll have to go to, say, the New Yorker‘s site. Which would presumably justify TNY making a fairly hefty rights payment to Boyle, no? And well-known literary novelists could benefit in a similar fashion, via a revival of the 19th-century serial system. Would they make as much money as they do now? I don’t know. But already, the vast majority of creative writers support themselves by other means, so I don’t think this shift would have any appreciable negative effect on the quality or quantity of new literary work.

Literature and the pleasure of text

I’m going to lay off Caleb Crain one of these days. But not today. Though today, I’ll let someone else take the lead: Daniel Green, who on Tuesday posted an elegant takedown of Crain’s “no will will ever read again!” whiner.

I’m never averse to a good glib summary, so if you don’t feel like reading Green’s lucid, compact piece: He says, among other things, that literature will survive because there will always be a few people who love reading it, and a few people who love writing it. Which is a point I’ve made before too. But neither his post on Crain, nor my previous posts, goes beyond that, and I think there’s more to say on the matter. Moreover, I think that the reasons why literature will survive are also the reasons why text—and thus literacy—will survive too.

Because life is short and I don’t know much about poetry, let’s confine ourselves to fiction. And let’s start by asking, What is literary fiction? Or rather, What makes fiction literary? In two words: meaningful complexity. Fiction cannot be literary unless it’s complex enough to require the reader’s active, sustained engagement in trying to understand it. And by “understand,” I mean more than “Ah, I see, A happens, then B follows, thus C is inevitable.” Literary fiction must force readers constantly to ask, What does this story tell me about myself, the world, and my relationship to it? And ideally, such fiction should tell him something new about those things.

(Not, I hasten to add, that literature can’t be about Narnia or some other faroff and/or long-ago place, or that it has to be “practical” in the sense of providing nuts-and-bolts guidance on how to live. Yes, I know this is the standard New Yorker short-story thing. But I take a Nabokovish view that the sort of self-reflection to which literature brings a reader need not be conscious and pragmatic—and indeed, ideally isn’t, and takes the form of what Stephen Kellman, glossing Big Bad Vlad, calls a “tingle… produce[d] when a book we are reading takes hold of us physically, from the brain down through the spine.”)

Of course much that is literary fails our complexity test in some way—think of Dostoevsky’s prostitutes with hearts of gold. But all literature must pass this test on balance, or it is something else. (On who gives such grades and how: ultimately, the process is subjective, and must rest with the individual reader. So what’s literature for some, isn’t for others, and while the weight of informed opinion is important, it can’t be determinative for everyone, reading every novel and story.)

There are other tests too. We also, for example, expect characters, especially protagonists, to be psychologically complex, and reflective, and want this reflection to play a key role in the work. But engaging, thought-provoking complexity, rather than its particular flavor, is the main thing.

Can non-text fictions be literary? Certainly—we can all come up with a list of films that meet this test. But I think there’s something about text that makes it the ideal medium for literature. With text, experiencing narrative is entirely an interpretive operation. Even basic sensory data, about what’s happening in the story, cannot be gotten directly from the words on the page. Say a story describes the sun as bright. Deciding what color that sun is, and how low it hangs, how bright it shines, and how it lights everything else—all this is done by the reader, if the writer so wills. Not so with an image of a sun in a film. And because a reader is always interpreting, his interpretive faculties, while reading, are sharpened, such that, when working with a good literary narrative, they become capable of creating an exceptionally powerful experience, one qualitatively different—and, for the lover of literature—more profound, than that which comes from experiencing narrative in more passive fashion.

Perhaps another medium will come along that will enable us to have similar, and similarly powerful experience. And that medium, then, will replace text as the best means of conveying literary narratives. But until that happens, even when books disappear, text will continue to flourish.