In a recent essay in Mother Jones, Ted Genoways blames the decline--both in numbers and in influence--of university-affiliated literary magazines not on the university administrators who are, as Genoways puts it, "off-loading" such magazines, nor or the editorial practices by which these magazines determine what they will publish, but on writers themselves. "For Christ's sake," he exclaims, "write something we might want to read."
The logic by which Genoways reaches this conclusion is quite confusing. As Mark Athitakis characterizes his line of thinking, Genoways argues that "Postmodernism is dead, but it persists, which means nobody wants to write fiction about Iraq, which means university-based literary journals are dying, but to solve that writers need to move away from academia." The essay does seem to be based on the assumption that academic literary magazines have been dominated by "postmodernism," although what this seems to mean to Genoways is that writers have stopped "giving two shits about the world," as if any fiction that doesn't concern itself with "big issues," which Genoways apparently equates with "giving two shits," is by default "postmodern."
I must say that when I look at any randomly chosen issue of any literary magazine, whether university-sponsored or not, I have a hard time finding fiction that could plausibly be called postmodern, if to be postmodern is to challenge the reigning narrative conventions promoted by the academic creative writing programs that often enough administer these very magazines. I actually agree with Genoways that there are too many litmags publishing too much perfunctory work, but that these magazines have proliferated because the demand for postmodernism is so insistent seems to me patently absurd. Furthermore, there is a rather glaring contradiction between the assertion there are too many publications chasing too few readers and the attempt to help them gather a bigger audience by suggesting they change their ways, which Genoways also makes. As he himself notes, most of the excess submissions made to a journal like Virginia Quarterly Review (of which Genoways is the editor), come from writers with the desire to write but not much talent for it, and if the number of literary magazines no longer expands in order to accomodate more such writers (as they inevitably do), the perceived problem that too many litmags go unread takes care of itself.
But this reduction of readership to those with a genuine interest in serious fiction obviously wouldn't satisfy Genoways, since presumably many writers would still avoid the "big issues." Ultimately his argument is not with the proprietors of literary magazines or even with academe and its supposed pernicious influence, but with the present cohort of American writers whom Genoways sees as insufficiently "engaged." He tries to cast this preference for "socially conscious writing" as a plea for writers to "reach out" to readers, but I'm not aware that large numbers of fiction readers have indicated that if only academic literary magazines would publish more such fiction they would start subscribing to them in droves. The connection Genoways sees between issues-focused fiction and larger audiences for literary magazines remains, to say the least, unexplored.
Unless he's suggesting that litmags convert themselves into outlets for journalism rather than fiction: "With so many newspapers and magazines closing, with so many commercial publishers looking to nonprofit models, a few bold university presidents could save American literature, reshape journalism, and maybe even rescue public discourse from the cable shout shows and the blogosphere." This concern for "public discourse" seems more immediate to Genoways than his ostensible concern for fiction or for literary magazines and their loss of audience. Perhaps contributing to "public discourse" is actually closer in spirit to the mission of the modern university than giving publishing space to the "merely literary." But if reshaping journalism is the new goal of "literary" magazines located on campus, I hope they just disappear instead.