Blame Writers

So there’s this article titled “The Death of Fiction?” in which Ted Genoways laments the demise of various print journals, etc. The gist: writers are writing self-absorbed crap so no one wants to read it. (Not addressed: why he’s—I guess—publishing said crap.)

Anyhow. Genoways is the editor of The Virginia Quarterly Review, a university-sponsored print journal. Apparently he makes $134,000/year for editing VQR, a figure I am gobsmacked by. I had no idea any literary journal editor made that much (solely from their position as editor).

In light of that tidbit, I wanted to comment on the accompanying blog post:

Here at VQR we currently have more than ten times as many submitters each year as we have subscribers. And there’s very, very little overlap. We know—we’ve checked. So there’s an ever-growing number of people writing and submitting fiction, but there’s an ever-dwindling number of people reading the best journals that publish it.

We dare say that half of the top fiction venues of the last decade—and indeed some of the great American fiction venues of all time—are in danger of folding or have already folded for lack of readership. And yet the number of fiction writers grows and grows. Fiction writers, we’re asking you directly: Why don’t you subscribe to just one or two magazines? Is $50 too high a price for the future of literary fiction?

Unfortunately, yes, there are people who write (not well) but don’t read. It’s been a peeve of mine since forever. But that crowd aside, it’s fallacious to assume that just because writers don’t subscribe to your publication, they aren’t reading it (and it’s a huge leap from there to assume that they aren’t reading at all).

So why aren’t writers (the ones who do read) subscribing to “the best journals that publish it” at the same rate they’re submitting? Well, it’s not hard to figure out. Let me unpack it for you.

First, it’s pretty much guaranteed that any writer submitting to VQR via the slush pile makes far less than $134,000/year given that the median income in the US (where presumably most of his unsolicited subs come from) is $32,140.

For some of those submitting, the best way to spend $50 may be on food (or some other necessity of life). A library card is free and gives one access to an array of journals. It’s still ok to go to the library, right?

But assuming I have $50 to spend on lit journals, I have to decide whether a subscription to a single literary journal is the best use of my money. As a writer, I’m not just reading to read, I’m reading to see where my work will fit. It follows that, as a writer, it’s more prudent for me to go to a bookstore and spend my $50 on individual copies of four different literary journals, which gives me insight into four potential venues for my work. (“Best of” anthologies appeal to writers for similar reasons.) A subscription, as nice as that would be, only gives me insight into one (and, ack, maybe it’s not the right one for me).

On the other hand, for a reader (who doesn’t write), a subscription is a good idea. Assuming you like the editorial direction, it makes sense to subscribe—you know you’ll get more of the same quality/aesthetic every issue. This is, I think, the main reason more non-writers than writers commit to a subscription.

One more thing to keep in mind is, everything else being equal, it makes sense that non-writer readers would have more subscriptions. Assuming writers-with-day jobs  have the same amount of free time to spend writing and/or reading as readers-with-day jobs, the readers have more time to read. Because they’re only reading. Writers have to read and write.

I mean, if what you really want is for writers to produce good work, you have to allow they need time to write, right?

Oh, but that’s not really what you’re saying at all, is it? Really what you’re saying is: Great unwashed masses who think you are writers? You’re not. Stop submitting to us, already. In fact, just stop writing. Go away. Oh, but, hey? Before you go, please buy a subscription. Pretty please? You owe it to Fiction! All paid up? Good. Now fuck off out of my lit journal’s slush pile.*

Seriously? If you don’t want to read slush, close your journal to unsolicited subs. Otherwise, keep reading and just say no to the stuff that doesn’t cut it. It’s not that hard: “No, thanks.” (Wait, do you even send out rejections?) Whining about how many subs you get when you probably don’t even read them until they’ve been through a few rounds of vetting by unpaid undergrad interns is just annoying. Talk about navel-gazing.

/long-winded answer

My question is, would Genoways still edit VQR if the position were unpaid?

*Apologies to Gordon Ramsay.

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