Yesterday I received a rejection slip from a fiction review. Rejection, either in sales of books or a form note from a publisher, is a part of being a writer. It’s not the end of the world. What was funny was I did not even remember what story I sent to this magazine. It was probably last year some time.
Which leads me to ask the question, how relevant are these fiction magazines/reviews in our time? Based on the available evidence, effectively none. They do not occupy the place of the major “slicks” from the first half of the twentieth century, which provided people with entertainment via their short stories. The publications now are the academic journals of the MFA programs. With a lengthy turnaround time, the major reviews do not serve as a way for a writer to break in and possibly make some money off their writing, but as a way to gain a credential for an academic career. This is part of the ongoing trend of institutionalizing literature within the walls of the academy, an ongoing trend since the end of the Second World War.
Take the masthead of this literary site. I do not know these people. They are probably (at least I hope) honest, well intentioned writers. Their biographies are an example of what I’m describing; publications do not represent a piece of writing meant to be taken on its own but a credit on a resume. It’s the creative writing version of publish or perish because of the academization of the creative writing craft. The effect of this on literature has been enormous, a topic I have written about multiple times. The MFA writer’s work only matters to a tiny academic set. But, that does not matter because getting the work out is another means to an academic job with the degree.
The Modernists like Ezra Pound had the now-famous “small magazines” like the New Age and Wyndham Lewis‘ BLAST. Unlike modern literary reviews, often backed by universities, these magazines were small independent operations focused on their specific avant-garde brand. The small magazines of Pound’s era were vanguards of Modernism. Today’s reviews are fully immersed within the MFA program-New York establishment of modern literature (or what passes for it, at least). The saddest thing is that the authors of the original small magazines wanted to renew Europe and Western culture through the avant-garde. The modern, neoliberal establishment seeks to tear it down. and bury it in an avalanche of postmodernism. The irony is that the “artists” within the academic ecosystem pose as the avant-garde. The academy will not be the source of new literary voices.
Modern fiction reviews took the route of the “Program Era” and became the journal for the academic discipline of creative writing, something I would argue is entirely different from creating interesting, insightful literature. No writer trying to work toward their craft can expect to break in through the reviews. Thanks to the Internet, writers can self-publish electronically or even in print, all circumventing establishment institutions. The challenge lies in finding someone to listen.