Last Friday my wife and I went up to New York City for the day. We visited the Norton offices, had lunch with my editor, and then met up with a friend of ours at the Museum of Modern Art which was hosting the Tim Burton exhibit. Then later we wandered down to Union Square, where we breezed through a couple bookstores. One of those was the big Barnes & Noble overlooking Union Square. It's a nice, four-level bookstore that has pretty much everything you've come to expect from Barnes & Noble, just more of it. They had an excessive magazine section, so of course I went looking for the literary journals.
"Wow," I said to my wife, "they have a pretty big selection here."
"Yeah," she said, "but who besides other writers actually reads them?"
And that's the question, isn't it? Literary journals are created and published to celebrate the short story (and poem), but all they really succeed in doing is creating just another outlet for writers to submit their work. These writers most likely don't buy or subscribe or even read said journal. Even if they have a work accepted and receive a contributor's copy, how many read every story or poem in the magazine? Granted, there are some writers who religiously subscribe and read journals, and God bless each and every one of them. But the majority (and I'll be the first to admit I may be way off in my estimation) simply see those journals as just another place to submit their stuff.
I'm sure I've spouted the same thing here before, but it's worth mentioning again. Yes, writers are readers too, but they make up a small percentage of the regular every day reader. Or do they? The people that go out every other month to buy James Patterson's latest potboiler probably aren't the same readers who also pick up the most recent copy of Tin House or Granta or The Paris Review or any of the magazines you see listed in that picture.
Publisher Hildy Silverman recently announced that Space and Time Magazine is almost up to 100 subscribers. I don't know about anyone else, but I find this very surprising, if not unsettling. A magazine as old and well-established as S&T, I would have thought they already had a solid subscription base up in the high hundreds, if not close to a thousand.
Perception is the key, I guess. We writers like submitting to the pretty literary journals hoping to get published in them thinking that when we do a lot of people will read our stories and poems. But with so much out there, so many different literary journals to choose from, how does one find the time to read every story and poem?
When I think of questions like this, I'm reminded of Stephen King's introduction to the Best American Short Stories he edited in 2007 (the one with William Gay's kick ass story "Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You?"). He talks about going into a major chain bookstore and transversing his way back to the magazines, and once he's there he needs to find the tiny section where they hide the literary journals.
We could argue all day about the reasons for fiction’s out-migration from the eye-level shelves — people have. We could marvel over the fact that Britney Spears is available at every checkout, while an American talent like William Gay or Randy DeVita or Eileen Pollack or Aryn Kyle (all of whom were among my final picks) labors in relative obscurity. We could, but let’s not. It’s almost beside the point, and besides — it hurts.
Instead, let us consider what the bottom shelf does to writers who still care, sometimes passionately, about the short story. What happens when he or she realizes that his or her audience is shrinking almost daily? Well, if the writer is worth his or her salt, he or she continues on nevertheless, because it’s what God or genetics (possibly they are the same) has decreed, or out of sheer stubbornness, or maybe because it’s such a kick to spin tales. Possibly a combination. And all that’s good.
What’s not so good is that writers write for whatever audience is left. In too many cases, that audience happens to consist of other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there. And this kind of reading isn’t real reading, the kind where you just can’t wait to find out what happens next (think “Youth,” by Joseph Conrad, or “Big Blonde,” by Dorothy Parker). It’s more like copping-a-feel reading. There’s something yucky about it.
Yes, Mr. King, there is something yucky about it. Something yucky indeed.