Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Do We Really Need More Writers?

It's with some trepidation that I ask this, since I've dreamed of making my living at the typewriter since I was, say, twelve years old.  The crazy, next-to-impossibility of this goal only made it seem like something I'd have to work even harder at.  My idealistic pursuit of literature was part of what made me attractive to The Wife, I dare say.  (That and I was still able to nail Chopin's B-flat minor Scherzo back then.)  Having secured The Wife, my literary output gradually trickled off.  (As did my hours of piano practice.)

But as this blog shows, there are loves we can never fully forsake.  I'm not so much a writer as a typist these days, and I know my limits, but I'll never stop laying down the words.

Still, I can't help agreeing with Ted Genoways, who writes over at Mother Jones about the looming death of the literary fiction magazines

Key facts: "Back in the 1930s, magazines like the Yale Review or VQR saw maybe 500 submissions in a year; today, they receive more like 15,000."  The article doesn't say what the circulation of the Yale Review is; the most recent figure I can google, from a 1991 New York Times article, is 4,000.  Even if its circulation has grown four-fold in 20 years (a bet I'm not willing to take), it's an unhealthy publication that gets more submissions than subscriptions.

Genoways goes on to explain: "Graduates of creative writing programs are multiplying like tribbles. Last summer, Louis Menand tabulated that there were 822 creative writing programs. Consider this for a moment: If those programs admit even 5 to 10 new students per year, then they will cumulatively produce some 60,000 new writers in the coming decade." 

He doesn't mention that universities will be raking in between six and twelve billion dollars doing it.  And they're not really producing "new writers," are they?  What they're producing are 60,000 new debt-laden MFAs ripe for disillusionment.  Really, what are all those kids going to do?  Maybe three or four of them can make a living writing novels.  A few might have a whack at screen-writing, editing, publishing, or advertising.  Some might step into the higher education pyramid scheme and teach the next generation of MFAs.  (There's not much hope there, either, it turns out.)  Just how are they expecting to pay back those student loans?

If every one of those graduates published only one book in the coming years, it would just about double the inventory of your local Barnes and Noble.  I don't know about you, but I only plan on get through half of the books in there right now.  (At least some of those MFAs will be writing poetry, though, so some of the new books will be slim.)

What's really heartbreaking is that, as much of a long-shot as a writing career is, you don't need any kind of degree to have your manuscript considered.  Just mail it in; then, when it comes back, mail it in to someone else.  This is one of the few careers that has a level playing field.  It just happens to be sky-high.  


  1. We're glad you're still 'laying down the words' and you are so right about the universities. Linda

  2. It is so sad that the dream of you can be anything you want to be is so not a reality. No wonder these last two generations are so lost and angry. They simply do not know what to do with themselves. It is also so sad that the comunity has realy been lost, that little village feeling we had. It was our town, our little space and you worked for your neighbor, a friend, a company that yor parents worked for. You knew you had a place in your corner of the world if it was writing for your local newspaper or working in the library. You could even plan to teach literature in a local school, but now it seems all gone. I cry some times at the thought it is over, the life I knew. Those words of bigger better things that is why we need progress as your wife says is a lie in it's self.
    We have progressed our future right out of a life. The cost has been too great.

  3. husband is currently a graduate assistant teaching Creative Writing 101 and working on his English masters....I have no idea what he(we) will do once he graduates. At 43 time is running out to find a "real" job.