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Third Degree Burns

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  • brent wodehouse
    I find this piece not unrelated to the scifi genre. What are your thoughts? Brent ... http://www.guernicamag.com/features/1688/third_degree_burns/ Third Degree
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 23, 2010
      I find this piece not unrelated to the scifi genre.

      What are your thoughts?



      Third Degree Burns

      by Jay Baron Nicorvo, April 2010

      It’s not navel-gazing MFA graduates who are killing literary fiction, says
      Jay Nicorvo. It’s blockbuster-hungry book editors and their habit of
      anticipating anticipations. A response to Ted Genoways in Mother Jones.

      In January, in an article published in Mother Jones, Virginia Quarterly
      Review editor Ted Genoways warned that struggling literary magazines were
      a harbinger for the demise of literary fiction. In “The Death of Fiction?”
      he writes, “Once strongholds of literature and learned discussion in our
      country, university-based quarterlies have seen steadily declining
      subscriber bases since their heyday a half-century ago - and an even
      greater dent in their cultural relevance.” The reason for this? Creative
      writing programs, and the glut of solipsistic writers they produce. The
      expansion of the guild system - academic, institutional - he says has
      bogged down editorial offices and bored readers with work that is insular,
      self-centered and often unreadable, when fictions should be concerned with
      big issues, radiant and reflecting the larger world. This is the same
      basic point Dana Gioia made about poetry nearly twenty years ago in “Can
      Poetry Matter?” but the point applied to fiction is a little wide-right.

      If fiction is indeed faltering, the university system isn’t at fault, nor
      are the navel-gazing writers who come out of it. The purpose of a Master
      of Fine Arts program in creative writing might be to produce professional
      writers, but most don’t - a hundred or so books have been published by
      Emerson College MFA alumni in the twenty-four year history of the program;
      compare that to the three thousand plus books published by Iowa Writers’
      Workshop grads during its seventy-five years cited by Edward J. Delaney in
      his ’07 Atlantic article, “Where Great Writers are Made.” What MFA
      programs do graduate are people who have mastered some of the uses of
      written English. And while this mastery might not be the most lucrative
      skill set, I would argue that it is the skill most widely applicable to
      making an honest living. Words are everywhere. If you can manage them
      well, chances are there’s a job for you, even in this economy. An MFA in
      creative writing, more often than it leads to authors who’ve published
      books, leads to lawyering, teaching, editing, librarian-ing, agenting,
      advertising, speech-writing, nursing, you name it. More than one quarter
      of the attendees of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs 2008
      Conference in New York City listed “Other” for their vocation, but it’s
      safe to assume these professionals continue reading even if they no longer

      There’s no guarantee that a graduate of an MFA program will go on to
      publish a book, but there’s no doubt that MFA programs produce more
      proficient readers. According to the 2007 NEA survey “To Read or Not to
      Read: A Question of National Consequence,” prose readers with graduate
      degrees are on average 10 percent more proficient. And readers read books.

      Almost as an afterthought in “The Death of Fiction?” - one that’s
      overshadowed by the easy generalization that academically trained writers
      ignore the larger world - is the following: “the blockbuster mentality of
      book publishing in the age of corporate conglomeration (to the point of
      nearly exterminating the midlist) has conspired to squash the market for
      new fiction.” Here, Ted lights upon the real reason to be concerned for
      the health and well-being of literary fiction.

      I’d like to take this time to ask a rhetorical question that sounds at
      first like a bad joke: What do acquiring editors at large publishing
      houses and investment bankers at big banks have in common? In The General
      Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, published in 1936,
      (incidentally, the same year the Writers’ Workshop began) John Maynard
      Keynes, in trying to make sense of the forces at work during the Great
      Depression, says that financiers are required to keep a close watch on the
      “mass psychology of the market,” which could change at any moment. This is
      an attention to the mentality of the mob, rather than to the value of the

      These days, editors at commercial publishing houses are required to do the
      same. They attempt to herd the mob because they no longer know how to
      reach the reader. Old media had a direct line to the audience that bought
      books, newspapers, and magazines. Publicity and marketing departments knew
      where to effectively (if not cheaply) spread the word about forthcoming
      titles and upcoming issues, expecting to get out what they put in. They’d
      print a few hundred or a few thousand galleys, mail them first-class to
      reviewers, watch the reviews roll in, and count the sales. But reviews no
      longer sell books. New media is the internet, and publicity and marketing
      departments have little central control over the flow of information.
      Amateur reviews of a book on Amazon are as important if not more so than
      the professional assessments in Publishers Weekly. And so what do editors
      do? They cling to what’s working, if not working well - blockbusters. The
      dominant, dysfunctional business model for movies has been adapted for
      books. And this is why more authors like John Edgar Wideman have had
      enough; he’d rather self-publish and have a larger say than be hamstrung
      by a system favoring quantity over quality.

      At commercial publishers, blockbuster books pay the bills and earn the
      promotions, and so editors, if they want to keep their jobs, acquire for
      the mass market. If you pay attention to who’s coming and going at the
      commercial publishers - and there’s a hell of a lot more going than coming
      - the business comes to seem like a game of musical chairs. When the music
      stops, the editor who isn’t on the acquiring end of a New York Times
      bestseller - Poor Little Bitch Girl, anyone? - is left without a desk

      As long as the music’s playing, the editors have to run around anxious to
      find the book that’ll help them keep their jobs. Most editors these days
      are speculators. They’re no longer asked to acquire the books that readers
      will read a hundred years from now - books that not only preserve the
      culture but further it. They’re expected to acquire the books that readers
      will want to read today, and so instead of reading manuscripts, they read
      the current cultural landscape. They assess the mass market to figure out
      which manuscript might be the next bestseller. Literary editors at
      commercial publishers, the few who still acquire novels, have become
      investors. Keynes writes that investing is, “so to speak, a game of Snap,
      of Old Maid, of Musical Chairs - a pastime in which he is victor who says
      Snap neither too soon nor too late, who passes the Old Maid to his
      neighbour before the game is over, who secures a chair for himself when
      the music stops.” But Keynes made another, more lasting, comparison, what
      has come to be known as the Keynesian beauty contest.

      Keynes thought investing was like newspaper competitions in which “the
      competitors have to pick out the six prettiest faces from a hundred
      photographs, the prize being awarded to the competitor whose choice most
      nearly corresponds to the average preferences of the competitors as a
      whole; so that each competitor has to pick, not those faces which he
      himself finds prettiest, but those which he thinks likeliest to catch the
      fancy of the other competitors, all of whom are looking at the problem
      from the same point of view.” In order to win, competitors are forced to
      select the outcome most selected by others, whatever their personal
      preference. “It is not a case of choosing those which, to the best of
      one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those which average
      opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree,
      where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion
      expects the average opinion to be.” If there’s anything that’s killing
      American fiction, it’s not MFA degrees and the institutions that bestow
      them. It is this: the third degree.

      Editors at large houses, like investment bankers at big banks, have for
      some time been acquiring from the third degree. They no longer acquire
      according to their tastes - they’re lucky if they can even distinguish
      their tastes from what their bosses and the bottom line demand. Because
      editors can’t know which books average opinion genuinely thinks are the
      best, not until said books climb the bestseller lists or make the
      shortlist for one of the few major awards, editors are left to anticipate

      It’s the Ted Genowayses of the world, editors at literary magazines,
      university and independent presses, who still operate on the first degree,
      choosing those manuscripts which, to the best of their subjective
      judgment, are really the prettiest as they see them. And while we’re still
      in the recesses of the Great Recession, even as retirement funds and
      university endowments begin a gradual rebound, university-affiliated
      publishers are feeling particularly pinched. But the more limber,
      light-on-their-feet publishers - those not tied to state institutions
      funded by tax revenue - the indie publishers mission-driven to publish
      literature, they’re the ones surviving and even thriving, thanks to
      changing, cheapening technology and the preferred tax status that their
      missions afford them. This, the privileged position of the first degree,
      may be a main reason why the incoming editor of The Paris Review is
      leaving a storied commercial publishing house, and an imprint thought to
      be a last commercial bastion of the literary novel, for independent

      To encourage writers to write about big issues is all well and good, but
      writers in an open society are going to do that regardless. The best
      writers write because they have to, but the best editors edit because they
      want to. It’s the editors, not the writers, who need encouraging. Editors
      need to change what, and how, they acquire. And what better encouragement
      for change than a terrible economy? Or, in the words of Rahm Emanuel, “You
      never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” If such a crisis brought
      about the restructuring of the Detroit auto industry, aided by the
      desperate implementation of available and developing technologies, it can
      usher in the restructuring of New York City publishing.

      Jay Baron Nicorvo works for the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses
      [clmp]. His poetry, fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Literary
      Review [http://www.theliteraryreview.org/%5d, Subtropics
      [http://www.english.ufl.edu/subtropics/%5d, The Believer
      [http://www.believermag.com/%5d and elsewhere. His debut poetry collection,
      Deadbeat, is forthcoming from Four Way Books
      [http://www.fourwaybooks.com/%5d. He’s the editor of The Ploughshares Blog
      [http://blog.emerson.edu/ploughshares/%5d and on the editorial staff at PEN
      America [http://www.pen.org/page.php/prmID/150%5d, the literary magazine of
      the PEN American Center [http://www.pen.org/%5d. He lives in the Catskills
      with his expecting wife, Thisbe Nissen, and their vulnerable chickens.

      Sources referred to in this piece:

      “The Death of Fiction?”
      by Ted Genoways.

      “Can Poetry Matter?”
      [http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/poetry/gioia/gioia.htm%5d by
      Dana Gioia.

      “Where Great Writers are Made”
      by Edward J. Delaney.

      “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence,”
      [http://www.nea.gov/research/ToRead.pdf%5d a survey by the National
      Endowment for the Arts.

      The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money
      ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CAoQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false] by John Maynard

      “John Edgar Wideman to Self-Publish New Book via Lulu.com”
      by Calvin Reid.
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