Death of Literary Fiction?

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Reblogged from Mother Jones

by Ted Genoway

IT’S INEVITABLE. At a dinner party or on the sidelines of my son’s soccer game, someone well-meaning will ask what I do. “I edit the Virginia Quarterly Review,” I tell them. “It’s the literary magazine at the University of Virginia.” They nod politely, sometimes with the vaguest hint of recognition. Yes, they remember seeing in the local paper that we’ve won some big awards, right? It’s well respected, isn’t it? But the idea of editing a literary magazine seems, to them, only slightly more utilitarian than making buggy whips or telegraph relays. It’s the sort of arcane craft they assumed was kept alive only by a lost order of nuns in a remote mountain convent or by the Amish in some print shop in Pennsylvania Dutch Country.

And, soon enough, that may be where it winds up. After more than a century of founding and subsidizing literary magazines as a vital part of their educational missions, colleges and universities have begun off-loading their publications, citing overburdened budgets and dwindling readership. Despite the potentially disastrous consequences to the landscape of literature and ideas, it’s increasingly hard to argue against. 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.

Consider this: When Wilbur Cross was elected governor of Connecticut in 1930, an unlikely Democratic victor in an overwhelmingly Republican state, his principal qualification was his nearly 20 years as editor of Yale Review. Indeed, Cross essentially invented the modern quarterly when he reshaped the sleepy review to more closely mirror The Atlantic in its discussion of current events alongside literature and criticism. While preparing to take office, he was in correspondence with Aldous HuxleySherwood Anderson, and Maxim Gorky about their contributions to the next issue. In fact, through four successive terms, Cross never left the helm of Yale Review—publishing John Maynard Keynes on microeconomics and Thomas Mann on the threat of Nazism—at the same time he was pushing back against legislated morality (such as Prohibition) and enacting tougher child-labor restrictions. When the New York Times asked how he found time to read manuscripts and review proofs while performing his responsibilities as governor, Cross deadpanned, “By getting up early in the morning.”

Read the rest of this essay here.

 

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