January 27, 2010
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Ted Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review, writes in Mother Jones about the long, slow demise of the literary magazine and, with it, the apparent end of magazine fiction.

A central point in this much-discussed article is often overlooked.

Back in the 1930s, magazines like the Yale Review or VQR saw maybe 500 submissions in a year; today, we receive more like 15,000.

Genoways muddles his point immediately thereafter (he seems to be blaming diversity for the amount of bad writing these journals receive), but the core observation stands: literary journals receive lots of submissions, and the people who submit stories to literary journals seldom read them. Indeed, lots of these journals, including some of the best, process far more submissions than their print run.

When was the last time someone told you at lunch that they'd just come across a great short story that you should read? When was the last time you heard the sports guy on the radio mention a new short story?

“People don’t read” is a canard, a silly thing that grumpy people say. It’s patently untrue. There’s no other way to learn physics or chemistry or medicine or software design. We still have physicists and doctors, so someone reads. We don’t read short fiction.

Why not? Because we watch a lot of movies, and we read a lot of novels, we all have bookstores and everyone has Amazon. Magazines were designed for a different set of constraints: tiny bookstores, subsidized postal rates, exorbitant shipping rates for parcels. The gas-powered truck, not the Web, killed magazines by making it as easy and cheap to stock a good bookstore in San Francisco as in Manhattan.

The constraints of the short story are dictated by the shape of the magazine, just as the constraints of the novel are dictated by the shape of the bookstore. (The shape of the feature movie is constrained by bathroom breaks; I don’t know why television favors 48-minute dramas.) We’re still buying stories, but because we buy them in different packages, their shape has changed. (“It comes in pints?”)