A "News and Trends" item in Poets & Writers on the state of reading in America informs me that
some say another fundamental factor in the decline of reading must also be addressed: contemporary writers themselves, who have a critical role to play if current trends are to be reversed. “I do think for a long time writers turned completely away from the audience,” [Christian] Wiman says. “You can’t simply go back to the past, of course, but I do think writers have to be aware of an audience.” [Audrey] Niffenegger points specifically to modernism as a wedge between writers and readers. “There was a shift away from narrative, where writers gave you less and less and made you work harder and harder. People got the idea that everything was going to be like Finnegans Wake, and everybody just said, ‘Okay, we’re going to the movies.’”
It's tempting simply to dismiss these as the philistine remarks they clearly are, but a closer examination of what both Wiman (as editor of Poetry magazine, presumably chosen to scold modern poets) and Niffenegger (left to take down modern fiction) are actually saying reveals that they're also just wrong.
It's telling that Wiman follows his accusation that poets have "turned completely away from the audience" with the caveat that we "can't simply go back to the past," as if the accusation implies exactly that in "the past" poets embraced their proper audience. Given that Wiman is one of the prominent exponents of the "poetry ruined itself when it stopped rhyming" school of advanced critical thinking, it's almost certain that what he really means here is that if only poets would return to rhyme and meter, they'd get their audience back.
But from my experience teaching introductory literature, most "general" readers of poetry seem to find contemporary confessional-style lyrics more accessible than older, closed form poems. They tend to be written in plainer, more idiomatic language, and their lack of rhyme and meter only makes them seem more direct, less concerned with artificial devices. Indeed, the farther back into the tradition of English-language lyric poetry they go, these students tend to find older, more ostensibly conventional (and thus more formally recognizable) poems less engaging. The intricacies of meter and rhyme scheme only appear peculiar to them (once they've been alerted to their existence), and the more obviously "poetic" language of this poetry they find difficult, hardly productive of the pleasure Wiman suggests poetry no longer provides.
There's plenty of accessible plain-language poetry around (Billy Collins, anyone?), so unless Wiman means to identify only the most insistently "experimental" poetry of the last 50 years or so as that which snubbed an audience, it's really hard to understand his complaint. Since few casual readers of poetry even know this line of poetry exists, it seems a pretty brittle stick with which to bash contemporary poets.
Niffenegger is more willing, it would seem, to identify the usual suspect of modernism for the putative decline of reading. ("Modernism" in such critiques being generally equated with "difficult" writing, that which makes us "work harder and harder.") And while it is arguably true that modernism began a shift in fiction away from a focus on "story," this shift was motivated by a stronger interest in "character," in ways of representing character that seemed faithful to the ways real people thought and acted. It really isn't credible to allege that in making this shift writers were offering "less and less"; they believed, in fact, they were offering "more"--more insight into human behavior, more emphasis on the motivations that give rise to "story."
If readers have become moviegoers because of changes in the form that fiction assumes, it has been in response to this sort of character-driven fiction, not because Finnegans Wake has become the paradigm for writers of literary fiction, which it certainly has not. Most nonreaders are as ignorant of the existence of Joyce's experimental novel as they are of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E P=O=E=T=R=Y, and if they'd rather go to the movies than read serious fiction, it's because they find Hemingway or Fitzgerald, Flannery O'Connor or Toni Morrison just as difficult, just as "boring" as any of the high modernists or metafictionists. If all fiction needs to do is be more like movies, what's the point of writing it in the first place?
If people like Wiman and Niffenegger want to continue to blame writers themselves for the American audience's indifference to their work, they should at least get their facts straight and reflect on their own assumptions about American readers, about whose tastes they offer only fantasies.