I recently read an interesting article in a writer’s magazine.
It does not matter which magazine. All writer’s magazines are the same. Their general tone can be summed up as follows:
“Buy this magazine and you will be a published author by nightfall.“
Whereas, my take on writer’s magazines is as follows:
“Read this magazine and we will be $8.95 richer and you will will feel like jumping off a building after reading the first article.“
But anyway, the article I read was about whether or not literary journals will be around very much longer. Apparently, nearly all of them are running in the red and can only stay afloat because most of them are heavily subsidized by the universities that they are tied to (however loosely). Many giants of the lit-mag industry have already closed their doors (e.g. Glimmer Train) and more closings are in the offing (e.g. Tin House).
One sentence I read in the article stood out to me. It read (and I paraphrase), “There are more people trying to get published than there are people wanting to read what is published.”
That struck me as a sagacious and sapient statement.
With the possible exception of writers themselves, a vast swath of the population no longer reads. And of those that do, very, very few of them read literary magazines. There are too many other forms of entertainment vying for peoples’ attentions. Furthermore, the spans of those attentions are getting shorter and shorter.
Why spend a collective 6 or 8 hours reading a book, when you can watch the movie or TV show in 2 hours? Why immerse yourself in the fictional world of a book, when you can immerse yourself in a fictional world of a video game?
This has led to an upheaval in writing as we all understand it. The democratization of writing as led to the commoditization of writing.
That is, there is no real value in writing anymore, because, frankly, everyone is a writer.
To paraphrase a popular expression, “If everyone is a writer, no one is a writer.”
Or, more accurately, “If everyone is a writer, no one is a reader.”
It has almost become meaningless to say, “I am a writer” nowadays. People just look at you blankly. It is like answering the question, “What do you do?” by saying, “I occupy space and convert oxygen to carbon dioxide.”
Well … yes … we all do.
We are all witnessing this in real-time in the rise of self-publishing. The servers at Amazon are rapidly filling up with people self-publishing their own books. But the real question is whether or not anyone is reading those books.
And we see it on a smaller scale on blogging websites such as the one you are reading this on. There are so many awesome writers on these sites. The problem is: who has time to read all of this content? One of the recurring themes I see among many of my favorite bloggers is that they all lament the fact that they cannot keep up with all of their favorite bloggers due to the sheer volume of posts.
And that brings me back to the question of whether or not we should care if literary journals begin to close their doors.
One reason we should care is because literary journals are really the only democratic vehicle for non-famous writers to get published in the traditional sense (i.e. on paper). Let’s face it: very, very few writers will ever be published in the The New Yorker or Harper’s or The Atlantic. Statistically, zero percent of us will be published in those prestigious outlets. Literary magazines, on the other hand, publish almost exclusively unknown authors. True, the main reason for that is because they cannot afford to pay famous authors, but that fact only works in our favor.
But, one reason we should not care if literary journals go under by the boatload is because, and it pains me to say this, most of what they choose to print is not particularly enjoyable to read. Full disclosure: I have never been published in a literary journal, so this may very well be sour grapes on my part. However, I have read many literary journals and I find them all to be abysmally tedious to slog through. It is very hard to read them cover-to-cover … and this from a man who loves to read.
I don’t know what to attribute this to. And, honestly, it is probably not for me to say. I think it falls under the “not my cup of tea” category. I don’t expect us all to like the same things, nor should we. However, I think part of the problem is that they more or less thumb their collective noses at anything that smacks of “mainstream” or “commercial” or “popular”. I can almost hear them saying in a haughty tone, “We are not here to publish what people want to read. We are here to publish what we think they should read.”
In essence, they are saying, “If you don’t eat your carrots, you can’t have your pudding.”
Except there is no pudding. It’s all carrots. And the literary magazines are all publishing essentially the same type of writing. There is actually none of the diversity of voices they all claim to be celebrating and publishing.
Maybe what will save literary magazines is for them to loosen up a bit and to publish things that people actually want to read.
Just my humble opinion.