Are you reading The Saturday Morning Post? You should be. It’s the personal blog of writer and editor Joe Ponepinto, describing the challenges of the author’s life and the pleasures of creating a new literary magazine, The Tahoma Review.
He and co-editor Kelly Davio have some admirable intentions for being transparent and fair with their magazine’s submission process, and I’m very interested to see how the Tahoma Review develops.
At the end of March, Joe wrote a two-part review of the new book “MFA vs NYC,” a collection of essays on the state of fiction writing in today’s America. The book’s basic thesis is that there are two hubs of fiction in the US: the commercial/literary publishing world of New York and the creative writing/small press world of the MFA program, which is spread geographically out through the universities.
In his review, Joe asks some troubling questions about that divide.
One question that leaped out to me was:
“Why are there so many writers and so few readers?”
He explains the logic of this question thusly:
Assume each of the 1300 or so CW MFA programs produces just 10 graduates per year, then over the last 20 years the country has produced a quarter million writers. And yet it’s hard to find a literary journal that boasts a readership of more than 1,000, probably 900 of whom are the people who produce the journal, and their friends.
The big picture, in other words, is this: literary journals seek out and publish the best short fiction out there. Most of these magazines are intimately connected to the creative writing departments that, every year, so many aspiring writers are desperate to get into. As a result, there should be a huge number of people who should want to read those magazines, people who have dedicated major portions of their lives to reading and writing literary stories, and who have gone through the kind of writing program that trains you to write and appreciate good fiction. These numbers are substantial: every year, over ten thousand writers and editors attend the AWP conference, alone.
Therefore: even if literary magazines are publishing an odd kind of fiction that only people who do MFA programs really like, or if (alternatively) they are publishing brilliant fiction that everyone likes, but simply lack the marketing budget to reach the general reader, there should still be loads and loads of MFA-trained reader-writers eager to subscribe and read.
Yet, if Joe’s guesstimate is right, most literary journals struggle to find a decent readership. Why?
I have some theories of my own, which I can share later, but I’m curious what you think about this. What do you believe is going on?