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Third Degree Burns

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April 15, 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.


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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 write.

If fiction is indeed faltering, the university system isn’t at fault, nor are the navel-gazing writers who come out of it.

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 individual.

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.

Editors at commercial publishing houses attempt to herd the mob because they no longer know how to reach the reader.

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 chair.

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.

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.

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 anticipations.

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 publishing.

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.

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Jay Baron Nicorvo works for the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses [clmp]. His poetry, fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Literary Review, Subtropics, The Believer and elsewhere. His debut poetry collection, Deadbeat, is forthcoming from Four Way Books. He’s the editor of The Ploughshares Blog and on the editorial staff at PEN America, the literary magazine of the PEN American Center. 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?” by Dana Gioia.

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

To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence,” a survey by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by John Maynard Keynes.

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

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14 comments for Third Degree Burns

  1. Comment by Heather K on April 15, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    fantastic!

  2. Comment by jerry on April 17, 2010 at 11:44 am

    Well said, Mr. Nicorvo. I believe you’ve hit the nail on the head.

  3. Comment by sarah on April 20, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    as someone who works for one of the more literary big publishers, I’d like to confirm your claims. a reasonable and true argument. perhaps, if we published more books we personally loved, others would love them too. let’s start believing there are smart readers in the world and stop hemorrhaging “average” throw away books.

  4. Comment by Francis Hamit on April 20, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    Interesting. MFA programs are not trade schools and there are many fine, successful writers who have never been near one. Those other occupations listed are simply “day jobs” (I’ve had a few myself) and a writer is always writing or thinking about writing or reading to see how others write.

    The problem with traditional publication is the delegation of the submission process to a group of people who work on commission. Literary agents are even more risk adverse than editors and are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of submissions.

    A lot of those submitting grow weary of the wait or the lack of response and go ahead and publish themselves. Why wait six month to two years when you can put your new story up on Smashwords.com in a day? Seriously.

    Why wait two years for a publisher to bring out your book when you can produce a comparable product in a few weeks what print-on-demand and get the same distribution?

    When got my MFA in fiction from Iowa there were only 15 such programs. Now there are more than 150, yet Iowa still rules. Why? They load the dice. You can’t get into that program unless you are already a very proficient writer. Other programs actually pay people to attend, but is that a good thing Or does Gresham’s Law somehow apply?

    When self-publishing and small press books start winning major literary awards, it’s indicative that money and power have little to do with literary quality or with literature itself.

  5. Comment by anonymous on April 20, 2010 at 4:23 pm

    I do agree that publishing industry needs to be restructured. But that can’t come from the editors. As you rightly pointed out, editors will lose their jobs if they don’t bring in books that sell. It’s the business model of publishing houses *in general* that is to blame. Publishers are paying bloated advances to books that just do not earn out. And those advances aren’t adjusting to the economy…the big six continue to pay atrociously large advances, because they can, and all other publishers bloat their advances in order to keep up with the competition, and what you have is a system where writers are getting paid a hefty amount for a book that doesn’t sell. Whether you like it or not, publishing houses are businesses…we expect the insurance companies to act like businesses, because hell, they don’t give a shit about us anyway. But we adore books…we collect them, we love them, we have a deep emotional connection to them. So to think it in any way comes from an unholy system – one which includes big business and corporate greed – is disheartening. The only thing that seems right is that advances go down before the whole system implodes on itself. But editors, in no way, shape, or form, can do something like that alone.

    But then again, those big beach reads do often earn out, and bring in money and attention, which allows the big publishing houses to get some smaller stuff in there as well. They are only reacting to what people read, and that, ultimately, is the heart of the problem.

    And just like the way publishing is a business, so is getting an MFA. MFA programs, aside from paying adjuncts and faculty, incur very few expenses. More universities have them because it’s free money. If you want to write, you can write, no one is stopping me and you should hold out on getting an MFA until you can find an institution that believes in you enough to fund you.

    I think this is a very complicated issue, in a complicated time. The fact of the matter is, with all there is out there to read, the general reading population’s attention is divided. Newspapers realized it first…then magazines…now books. I think everyone understands that, and is struggling to adjust. But to talk about the third degree seems to just be scratching the surface, and the issue certainly involves more thought and insight than Mr. Nicorvo gives it. I’ve not even though about it as deeply as I would’ve liked here. But I can’t rightly say it is the editors that are killing literary fiction…it is the reading population, who continue to plunk down money for the easy beach reads. Instead of pointing fingers, those who truly care about this issue would be better off buying literary short story collections or novels or poetry collections and using their library cards for the blockbusters. Rally the troops the right way.

  6. Comment by Michael Copperman on April 20, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    Thanks, Mr. Nicorvo. That seems exactly right.

  7. Comment by Gina Frangello on April 21, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Amen, Jay. While I’m not sure we can specifically point the finger at “the editors,” who might be out of a job if they don’t rake in money for the shareholders of the big corporate publishers, I certainly think you are on the right track in terms of which system (book marketing, the way the reading public responds to branding, and the way editors have become drones for artless corporations in pursuit of big bucks) is the most problematic to literary fiction.

    Sure, I have concerns that there are too many MFA programs, too many people who are under the vast misimpression that going to one of these programs will end in a viable living wage (much less in glorious fame), and I think we all know full well that many people who graduate from writing programs are not . . . well, really that talented, because there are simply too damn many of them for everyone to be a shimmering star, and so a kind of homogeneity can ensue. Okay, yes, maybe. MFA programs might be guilty of admitting too many people in pursuit of the almighty dollar too.

    But that “problem,” so to speak, is a small drop in the bucket of the literary crisis in America (and the world), and despite its imperfection no doubt writing programs do more to aid literary culture than to harm it. Big publishing, on the other hand, is quite another matter. Thank you for pointing out this truth.

  8. Comment by Nick Mamatas on April 22, 2010 at 12:16 am

    Ted Genoways pulls down a six-figure salary to edit a quarterly publication with fewer than 50,000 readers. MFA programs may well be a problem, but journal fiefdoms are another. What does Genoways do that really rates his salary? And I ask that as a) a fairly happy VQR reader, and b) a publishing professional who makes one third of his salary.

  9. Comment by trina lopez on April 22, 2010 at 10:11 am

    Hey Jay do you have an MFA?

  10. Comment by Drew on April 22, 2010 at 10:26 am

    Worth mentioning that Lorin Stein wanted to continue at FSG while editing The Paris Review but The Paris Review wasn’t willing. So the motive you infer is probably not accurate.

    Not sure about a lot of this…in fact I think there is more middle ground than not between your take and the Genoways piece.

    You say editors are the problem because of a kind of fear-induced, market-based drive to pander solipsism to the masses. His piece says that writers are all too willing to supply solipsism to be pandered.

    I don’t see much daylight between those views. They’re not identical but they are complementary.

  11. Comment by Berfrois on April 26, 2010 at 6:34 am

    “What links acquiring editors at large publishing houses and investment bankers? An attention to the mentality of the mob”

    Wonder if Maxwell Perkins would have poorly edited and then sold short ‘A Farewell to Arms’ if he had worked for, say, Goldman Sachs?

  12. Comment by Al Cordle on April 26, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    According to Ulrich’s, VQR only has 7000 paid subscribers. This article from 2006, says the annual budget is 800,000: http://tinyurl.com/genopaid

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