Does a contemporary literary work
have to be read to matter?

I’m wondering this apropos of academic fiction and poetry. Not works that appeal mainly to academics and students, because they’re interesting as objects of study. That would encompass a lot of writing – Robbe-Grillet’s novels come to mind – that may only be read by a very few, but is indeed read. I’m talking about works published by those who teach in, or have graduated from, and now aspire to teach in, an MFA program.

Their incentives are different from those of writers outside academia (if not from most other literary writers, since so many literary writers are now part of the MFA world). Early in their careers, their main goal is to get a teaching job if they don’t have one, or tenure if they don’t have that. After tenure, their chief goal is to burnish their reputations.

In achieving each of these goals, the twin currencies are publication, and favorable notices from critics and other writers who command authority in the MFA world. Many of these writers publish most or even all of their works with university or other non-profit houses. To get a deal from one of these publishers, it’s essential – and generally sufficient – to get positive notices from a few of the aforementioned critics and writers. Many of whom teach in MFA programs.

Certainly the best of these works can and do attract an audience, and occasionally a large audience, outside academia.

But who’s not part of the audience, for many, many such works? Readers, in the sense of a broad reading public. Books succeed in the marketplace because they attract interest from a lot of people who… well, read. Books, cover to cover.

Wait – even if these books aren’t read by a broad public, they’re still read, right? After all, these works get people jobs, tenure, even a certain renown. That means they matter – indeed, they matter a great deal, to those who write them.

Do they have to be read? is the question I have to ask. Consider an MFA faculty member, at the end of a long day, looking down at a manuscripts she’s supposed to read and comment on, in order for her comments to help or hinder the writer to get a job, or tenure, or have the work published. It’s late. There’s a drink somewhere with her name on it. Dave, or Cynthia, or Devin, or whoever, is a nice guy whose faculty advisor, at another MFA program, has said good things about him, both as a person and as a writer. The title isn’t enticing, and the pile of pages is thick. Should she scan the first few? Certainly, and then she’ll read the rest of it, and have much better things to say than the approving if unspecific pablum she grabs from another rec letter she wrote a while back, and tarts up just enough – she is a writer, after all – to “make it new,” before typing it into the email she sends to editor. She’ll read it. Later. Or perhaps not. Either way, the book gets published. Does it sell? A few copies to university libraries, where it sits on the shelves. Does anyone take it out? Does it matter? The press gets its subventions renewed – after all, it published a book that got a favorable notice from our faculty member, whose work is quite well-respected. The university library gets more money to buy more such works. Perhaps the author’s mother reads his book. But if she doesn’t, no matter. He gets the job he so wants, teaching others who hope one day to follow his path.

Is this a plausible scenario? If it’s plausible, does this suggest that this sort of thing could, and perhaps does happen over and over again, to the extent that much academic literary writing is barely read? Or that a good chunk of it is even unread? I wonder.