Writer, Read Thyself

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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.

 

24 comments

  1. It reminds me of The Oscar’s. surely Oscar judges must have a standard by which to determine what they consider to be great films. It’s just their standard may not be what the general populace’s standard may be

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I recently had a book signing at the biggest book store I have ever seen. (Think the biggest Barnes and Noble you know, attached to the biggest library you’ve ever seen. – That would be their “used book section.”) There were literally millions of titles, and probably a million authors, giving me a new and rather discouraging perspective. I was disappointed at the number of books I sold that day, but considering the odds, I am surprised that I was able to sell any at all. And yet, one note saying “Your book changed my life!” still makes my day.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. When resources become less scarce, they become less valuable. It’s happening everywhere. Many years ago I paid my bills as a copy writer, and more recently as a voice actor… but both fields have become severely commoditized, and far less profitable per project. Whatchyagonnado? I almost feel bad for the lit mags. Almost.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hear ya, Darius. There are so many jobs that used to provide a good living that now have succumbed to the gig economy and barely keep a person in coffee money. I am generally an optimistic guy, but it’s hard to see where this is going.

      And, like you, I almost feel sorry for the lit mags. But mostly I feel sorry for writers who are running out of places to have their stuff published, no matter how remote the odds are.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a literary magazine. Your assertion they tend to be associated with universities suggests they suffer from Ivory Tower syndrome, and may be too pretentious for their own good. I say, let ’em sink, and perhaps be resurrected in a more enjoyable format.

    A somewhat related quote:
    “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” — Mark Twain

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Dave! Great quote. I’ve never heard that one before, but like most of Twain’s sayings, he hits the nail right on the head.

      I had almost despaired of traditional publishing coming back into fashion, but then vinyl records came back and so I realized that anything can be resurrected.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. More and more writers, less and less readers…. I have noticed the same general feeling that bloggers are falling behind in their reading of others’ work (I plead guilty for that, big time!).

    I don’t know much about literary magazines, but I am starting to feel familiar with blogging ( 😛 ) and it seems to me that it is more and more a writing marathon. We lose players along the way, either because they get disappointed, tired, don’t have enough free time anymore, or simply lose interest.

    To me, the difference between the ones that stay, and the ones that leave the ship has little to do with talent (or lack of…). I think that what makes some of us stick to our keyboards after years of posting is that we manage to build a strong network of positive and inspiring people around us. I think I am very lucky and blessed in that way 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Sis! Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

      I am guilty, too, of falling WAY behind on reading my fellow blogger’s writing. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day.

      And you are so right about the transition from a solitary pursuit with faint hopes of being published, to it being a community effort with a small number of writers reading each other and encouraging each other. It is indeed a blessing to be a part of such a family of writers as that.

      Like

    • You are so right! I think they’ve all fallen victim to “writing in a vacuum” syndrome. I think they are all just so busy competing with each other that they have been ignoring the fact that no one in the larger population is much interested in reading their wares. Maybe a few of them will wise up and the pendulum will begin to swing back the other way a bit.

      Like

  6. You’re right–people just don’t read much anymore. Even I’ve found myself doing that TL:DR thing when I shouldn’t. I look at my 6 year-old niece who, whenever she has downtime, goes straight to playing games on her phone. When I was a kid, I went straight for a book. But I think also, as a writer, that I have to be really honest and say that I find it hard to make the time to read other people’s stuff. I’m too busy with my own, and it doesn’t leave much time for engaging, which is why you don’t see me on here much outside of Sunday. One day, I’ll retire and then I’ll be plaguing you all with my witty commentary!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Suzanne!

      I agree … I am appalled at myself at how much I’ve become a TL:DR reader. I used to be undaunted by “War and Peace” length books. Now if I glance at an article and it is more than 3 or 4 paragraphs long, I just set it down and move on. I don’t know how I became that way, but I don’t like it.

      Perhaps it has been caused by our electronics, which bombard us constantly with continually-changing images and text. It has created within us extremely short attention spans.

      And I always love it when you drop by! I will count myself fortunate when you begin to “plague” me with your witty commentary. I already DO count myself fortunate whenever you drop by. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Huh. Good post. And thought-provoking points. Lit mags do have a very distinct style that, aside from the pithy tumblr-esque ones like poetry, are too dense and disconnected from the general public. It’s like a very small circle of lit people who read lit in an effort to be published in them, but that’s about it. People read literary magazines to be published in literary magazines, but people don’t read for the sake of reading literary magazines. Hence the magazines going under, as you wrote.

    In general, I think most magazines are all going under. Newspapers, magazines, etc. Even those prestigious outlets you mentioned–they’re going relatively strong compared to their local counterparts, but even they’re still gasping from general digital trends (advertisers no longer filling their pockets quite as heavily…and then journalists bearing the brunt of that + being overworked, underpaid) Most people might not even want to read outlets like The New Yorker anymore…not when they have more easily accessible, mainstream Buzzfeed. Well, not Buzzfeed, but places that churn out pieces like crazy. Stuff your aunt can find on Facebook.

    It’s just a very weird age for writers and publications. I miss–and now I sound super old–when papers held legitimacy, and books and newspapers were “special,” less self-publishable, and real news was real news, and clickbait didn’t run amuck. That was only, what, 5-10 years ago?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Lu! Thanks for reading, and for the thoughtful comments. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I believe lit magazines exist in a kind of echo chamber, where they all try to outdo themselves in obtuseness and abstraction … to the point that “regular” readers find the prose to impenetrable and so just move on to something else.

      Your right about all printed media outlets suffering and struggling to stay alive. A day or two after I wrote this post, I was contemplating the idea (as you talked about in your comment) that the golden age of writing (and reading) is now passed, and that we are now in an age of disposable writing, with a half-life that is measured in minutes. It seems fantastical now to think that at one time there were people who made a very good living writing short stories or even poetry. Now, even an amazingly gifted writer of short stories will, at best, be paid in contributors copies. Will that ever reverse? I tend to think not, but I have been so wrong about a great many things that I try not to predict the future any more.

      Thank you for the thoughtful comments! Hopefully, writing will someday become special and valued again.

      Like

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