Chronicle of a death foretold ridiculously


Hack, dandy

I like a piece of dumbassery as much as the next guy. But there’s a limit.

Virginia Quarterly Review editor Ted Genoways retreads a lot of dull, commonplace ideas into a baffling mixture in a Mother Jones article titled “The Death of Fiction?” Among his little points of light: readers are not being connected with; university lit mags are dying; MFA programs are spoiling literature. Etc. He winds his way through this well-trodden forest and concludes, a la Tom Wolfe, that writers need to stop looking inward and start taking on “big issues.”

And since he seems to be writing about university lit mags, I guess he means writers need to take on “big issues” in short stories.

Here’s the article. And here’s a nice takedown at HTML Giant by Roxane Gay.

Here’s a quotation: “But the less commercially viable fiction became, the less it seemed to concern itself with its audience, which in turn made it less commercial, until, like a dying star, it seems on the verge of implosion. Indeed, most American writers seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues—as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism.”

I used to give two shits about the world. Then I attended an MFA program, and the number of shits was reduced to one.

Some other thoughts:

Nobody gazed any longer or harder at a navel — or tackled fewer “big issues,” unless you count the essential depths of humanity — than Proust. And I don’t think he even went to grad school. Also, he’s a pre-post-modernist.

You know who’s really connected to the need for relevance, commercial-wise? Dan Brown. No po-mo bullshit there.

Plenty of writers look outward. Dave Eggers comes to mind. William Vollman does some crazy, long, detailed writing about the world. But maybe Genoways is not writing about those kind of writers. Maybe he’s writing about the slush pile at the VQR. Maybe he’s writing about the struggling, probably young, maybe less-than-excellent-but-trying-to-get-better writers (you and me, perhaps) he is rejecting at his magazine. Which seems shitty.

Finally:  Literary audiences are shrinking. Universities are falling out of love with literary projects. (Farewell, EWU Press). Lots of people are writing now – way too many, for sure. Screw those people. Other places besides academic journals publish fiction. Fiction will eat stone and go on. Some modern writers are good. Some (Ted Genoways, I’m looking at you, buddy) are not.


I had a teacher in high school who introduced me to a lot of good literature. He also introduced me to found poetry, which I always thought was kind of stupid. But I’m going to try something similar, in which I do a cut-and-paste poem-like object, made out of something I’m writing about this week, kind of like a kidnapping note.

This is something I hope to do regularly. I did it fast. I make no claims for quality.

Literature Dies Screaming in the Lobby of Ted Genoways’ Virginia Manse

due partly to a shift in our culture

he found time to read manuscripts and review proofs

while performing his responsibilities as governor

a few execrable screeds,

sold on newsstands,

seized upon the eyewitness remembrances of

a few bold university presidents

for Christ’s sake,

precious snowflake,

write something

venture out

swear off


(Disclaimer: Poem may not make a “lick” of sense. All lines copied, in little bits, from the article, “The Death of Fiction?”, except for the title. I apologize to poets for calling this a poem.)


  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I hate that business regarding writing about big issues — so asinine. What are the big issues in Lolita? How about The Sound and the Fury, or The Stranger? Each of these books creates the context — the world — in which the story exists. So there might be big issues surrounding the work, but the stories don’t particularly address these big issues and aren’t primarily concerned with them. The Stranger is not about French occupation of Algeria. Lolita is not about American consumer culture, though that’s the world in which the story takes place, and the book might be revealing something about it. Any good book is going to deal with the big issues of being alive and fucked up. To think all fiction has to involve some kind of reporting gets us The Jungle. Or Dan Brown.

    • shawnv says:

      yeah, plus it seems as if the argument that literature is in trouble is based on the notion of a large, commercial audience. the audience might get smaller or more limited, but it’s not going away…i think more niches, more small communities, small presses, independent stuff, journals, etc., could be a good thing, long term, for the art.

  • Jaime R. Wood says:

    No apologies necessary, Shawn. That was totally a poem, and not a bad one either, especially given the context. This is good foreshadowing for my next post about Dana Gioia’s article “Can Poetry Matter?”. Look for it. You’re right on.

  • Adam OR says:

    Ted Genoways’ article, meant to be a lament and also a warning to The Greater Literary Community, reads like a personal journal entry titled “Why I Regret Not Taking More Risks at Work.” So I say: Take more risks, Ted. Put yourself and your work on the line. Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. Which is not to say VQR isn’t a good magazine—it is—but clearly Mr. Genoways doesn’t think so.

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