Ted Genoways, editor of VQR, wrote an impassioned call for action in Mother Jones. Essentially, he laments the decline of the literary journal and the explosion of creative writing programs and writers who don't read.
About those writers who don't read:
"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. Yet the average literary magazine now prints fewer than 1,500 copies. In short, no one is reading all this newly produced literature—not even the writers themselves."
The flaw in this thinking is that writers are either reading literary journals or not reading at all. "Newly produced literature" is a malleable term. As a writer, I read "newly produced" collections every year — a lot of them (20, 30). But I read few journals because I need more of a winnowing process.
There's a winnowing process — from unpublished manuscripts to literary journals, and from literary journals to Pushcart/BASS/Collections. I've read the unpublished manuscripts in slush piles, and I've read literary journals, and I tend to prefer collections (even more than Pushcart and BASS).
Why? Because for one, many stories in literary journals don't make it to collections. That winnowing process allows me to access a better bank of literature. Two, I like reading numerous stories by a single author, because the stories connect more than many journals.
And three, because pragmatically, I have far too much to read (no, really — it's impossible to keep up). Everyone has far too much to read. Not only because we're bombarded with all sorts of flashy doohickeys like Twitter and DVR and Netflix and computer games and video games, but because the sheer amount of fiction produced each year is overwhelming.
In other words, while Genoways notes quite correctly the proliferation of creative writing programs and writers, he fails to take into account the impact of the proliferation of words. We're drowning. And we cope with that drowning by moving up the ladder: by choosing to read books, which offer a further winnowing process than literary journals.
I'm not saying that I don't like or read literary journals — I do. I'm just trying to trampoline off Genoways argument to show how and why things are the way they are. And I'm not saying it's right, just that this has been the pragmatic route many have slipped into.
I don't know the solution. But as the era of e-books dawns, I suspect that ten years from now, Genoways and other literary editors will be looking back on the '00s as the good old days. Because if you can't get anyone to subscribe or read journals now, just wait until there's an infinite amount of stories, novels and nonfiction available for free on e-readers.