I edit a lit journal/blog–that line is thin these days–and I am a reader for UK imprint on radical theory and literature. I read a lot on my own and as a teacher. I see tons of writing: many good ideas from people who can’t really write as a teacher, but equally bothersome are good writers who don’t have many ideas. One of the things that has gotten to me is that there are some trends that have existed in literary fiction since the 1960s, and, definitely since the development of MFAs but also the New Yorker’s taste for fiction has something to do with it, is the banality of the domestic short story. Small scenes, minor conflict, hopefully rendered meaningful by character or quirk. I get a lot of that in fiction in literary magazine, where as to contrast that, as a book reader, I primarily specialize in non-fiction, but what I tend to see there is Young Adult style dystopian novels.
One seems to be life in minimalism and the other in maximalism, but they almost seem to have genre tropes that now override the author. Many of these authors I reject are quite good writers, but under the spell of a genre–and I fear literary fiction has ceded so much to the genres that its primary genre concern in short stories is quirk and banality–the work subsumes to that genre. It is a subsumption of art to marketing.
It is completely understandable as a reader, I must sometimes suggest publish things that I think aren’t saying anything new because I know that confirmation bias plays into the publishing world: we have to make money. I refuse to suggest we publishi anything bad or totally obscurantist though. I stand behind my suggestions at a level of basic quality, but innovation or original insight is often harder. People like familiarity. They also like novelty, but one is safer than the other. We talk about this all the time in movies, but I rarely see people willing to be honest that this trend has effected books: the dominance of YA dystopia is not different than the dominance of comic book movies. As a teacher, I understand this, there is a focus on “high engagement, low ability books.” IN short, books that are entertaining, but easy to read. Some of these books are substantive: Tony Morrison, for example, is thematically very hard but her lexile score puts her at 7th grade reading level on a sentence-by-sentence bias. I doubt a 7th grader can understand Beloved thematically, but they can past the words.
But reading tastes are reinforced by this, and you do see a decline in the complexity of books. Several authors I respect, including Ian McEwan has said the complex, multiple re-read demanding novel, is effectively dead in literary publishing. Time crunches and competition from the internet as well as a glut in the market and market imperatives mean that people have to get the novel quickly. Ironically, this has let to a lot of innovation on the margins of genre fiction, which has a more devoted reading base because of sub-cultural commitments. The idea that consumer choices can make an identity disturbs me, but that is what music genre and nerd culture identity have always been.
One is inclined to fight these trends, but it hard to do. It is would be inappropriate to me as an editor to write to each short story author who sends me another piece of the “banality of everyday life” or “character with X quirk fucks up things and story ends unresolved and say, “I want you write a story completely unlike this with all the talent you cultivated into this.” Now, I could do that as a reader for publishing house, but there I must consider clickbait culture and trying to balance bringing new ideas to an audience, with audiences that seem to increasingly just want their world view confirmed.
All this banality leads to another one: the writing of rejection letters. Something I neither hate nor enjoy. It is mostly just tedium. Sometimes it does bug me to write even nice and personalize rejection letters to good writers though who have subsumed themselves into genres that are running out of things to say.