The reality is that not everyone can be a doctor, not everyone can be a professional athlete, and not everyone can be a writer. You may be a precious snowflake, but if you can’t express your individuality in sterling prose, I don’t want to read about it.
–Ted Genoways, "The Death of Fiction?" in Mother Jones Jan/Feb 2010

Here Ted Genoways, editor of The Virginia Quarterly Review, expresses his mission statement, so to speak,  a way of turning aside submissions he simply doesn't want or have time to read.  We might ask ourselves if  this, in itself, is  "sterling prose," and wonder why we should read it if it's not.  Two matters make this less than "sterling," in my view, and I'd like to point them out as a means to talk about what we  talk about when we talk about writing.

One problem is the speciousness of the analogies: a doctor becomes a doctor by going through considerable training and vetting; an athlete -- which is something "anyone" can be -- only becomes a professional athlete by getting paid, and continuing to get paid, to play a sport.  The "anyone" here, to be an athlete, is anyone who puts in the time to train, has talent, drive, and what is generically called  "athletic ability."  Granted, some may wish they had it, but really don't.  It's assumed that everyone who is a professional athlete has some ability -- though their detractors and anti-fans may deny it vehemently.

Is writing really like either of these things?  Not really, and here's why.  Anyone, literally, can be a writer, so long as he or she is literate.  Children are encouraged to be athletic but they don't fail school if they aren't (I know whereof I speak on this one).  But they really aren't supposed to graduate without being able to write.  Therefore, they are writers, potentially.

Genoways doesn't say "professional writer" because he knows that wouldn't help his argument.  The pay scale for poetry and much literary writing is so low that people who are professional writers -- journalists, mostly, but also celebrities who write books, or who become celebrities by writing books -- would hesitate to call them professionals.  And everyone who considers him or herself a literary writer knows this.   Many, possibly most, are not trying to become  "professional writers" in that sense.  Certainly,  most want to be published writers and most would like to be paid for their writing, and would like to sell their books, but many of the people submitting to literary journals are "amateurs" if we define "professional" as "getting paid to write."   Many literary figures, some quite respected, make their livings by something other than writing.

Genoways is well aware of this and so the "professional athlete" analogy really doesn't work, but he wants to differentiate between sheer ability or doing it for love of the game, and being an athlete paid to compete.  But pay isn't really the issue when it comes to writing, even if VQR pays.  If it were they'd only accept submissions from agents, who are getting paid to make sure their authors make money.

The doctor analogy doesn't work at all, not even really for academic writers, who also don't get paid (much or always) for their writing, though they are expected to produce it.  Not everyone can become a Ph.D.,we might say, but, if you do become one, you now have a credential that gives you authority to conduct research and comment on research in that field.  You may or may not get paid for that; as with many writers, your real pay, what makes you professional, comes from teaching.  A doctor, generally, gets paid for practicing medicine, making him, maybe, a bit like the freelance writer, but one rarely hears of someone being a doctor "on the side."

Getting paid for writing may be difficult, in part, because anyone can be a writer.  And though Genoways might like to think that being an editor for a respected journal is comparable to those who hand out degrees in medicine or those who hire athletes, it isn't really.  An editor of such a journal is given the task of deciding, from all that it is submitted and solicited, what suits the journal, what fits with what.  Some of that may come from people with credentials, some of it not.   Some from students in MFA programs, some from their teachers, some from people who wouldn't go near such a thing.  Or it may come only from whomever the editor knows and is in contact with.

If not published by VQR, the writing might still find a home somewhere, and if published somewhere, it may claim some at least minimal credit as published.  And that's really the only point in Genoways' prose that stands: his statement of his own tastes as an editor.  If  it's not sterling prose, don't send it, he's not interested.  Someone else may be.  And so, while the person Genoways rejects is, in his scheme of things, not a writer, it may be that the person really is, and maybe even a professional one.

So what of Genoways' prose?  Do you not find that bit about the "precious snowflake" cloying?  Does anyone really want to read writers who are considered or consider themselves precious snowflakes?  Genoways goes for the cheap laugh -- oh, yes, Ted, we know that type, how rough it must be to read such poseurs.

But then he doesn't say (which would make me be with him more): if you cannot write sterling prose, I don't want to read you.  Fine.  But no, he says "if you cannot express your individuality in sterling prose," which gives the game away: "express your individuality" is not sterling prose (at this point, I think "sterling prose" is rather less than sterling), but seems a concession to the language of that "precious snowflake."   But why?  To say that the "sterling" expression of individuality will trump the "precious" expression of individuality?  If so, it leads us to believe that the expression of individuality is what Genoways is after, when the point he seems most passionate about is decrying the protracted navel-gazing of American fiction writers who don't seem to know or care that there's a war or a world or a world war going on.

If Genoways, as editor, were reading Genoways' essay, well, let's just say it might not make the cut.

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6 Responses to Adventures in the Word Trade

  1. Not to pick a fight with my own people, but you wrote:

    If so, it leads us to believe that the expression of individuality is what Genoways is after, when the point he seems more passionate about is the protracted navel-gazing of American fiction writers who don’t know there’s a war or a world or a world war going on.

    But Ted Genoways wrote, as a criticism, in the middle of his essay:

    Indeed, most American writers seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues—as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism.In the midst of a war on two fronts, there has been hardly a ripple in American fiction. With the exception of a few execrable screeds—like Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint (which revealed just how completely postmodernism has painted itself into a corner)—novelists and story writers alike have largely ignored the wars. Even our poets, the supposed deliverers of "news that stays news," have been comparatively mum; Brian Turner is the only major poet to yet emerge from Iraq. In this vacuum, nonfiction has experienced a renaissance, and the publishing industry—already geared toward marketing tell-all memoirs and sweeping histories—has seized upon the eyewitness remembrances of combatants and the epic military accounts of journalists. That, combined with the blockbuster mentality of book publishing in the age of corporate conglomeration (to the point of nearly exterminating the midlist), has conspired to squash the market for new fiction.

    And in his final paragraph:

    At the same time, young writers will have to swear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world worthy and in need of the attention of intelligent, sensitive writers.

    Can you explain?

  2. Donald Brown says:

    Brian, you are quoting the very parts I had in mind when I said what he seemed most passionate about was the navel-gazing of self-involved fiction -- rather than"'expressing individuality," a throwaway line he doesn't really mean. It could be that you're thinking I mean "passionate about" as "in favor of" but I don't; I guess I could clarify that it seems he's in fact denouncing throughout those who only try "'expressing (precious) individuality" as the point of their writing, so it's odd for him to say, if they could do that in "sterling prose" I might be interested. When in fact, as the passages you quote show (and I hoped anyone reading my piece who read Genoways would know that's what I was referring to), he's mainly interested in non-fiction about the world.

    so I'll change the wording to make it clear, thanks!

  3. Bennett Lovett-Graff says:

    Cat fight...rowr!

  4. Bennett Lovett-Graff says:

    "if you can't express your individuality in sterling prose" begs a question: what if the individuality being expressed isn't worth the reading? Can sterling prose, for example, salvage a dull story? It seems sterling prose, whatever that means, is for Genoway, a minimum requirement and he suggests that sterling prose may well be the foundation for the expression of individuality. (If it ain't sterling, then the individuality is submerged in the implied conformities---non-individuality--of bad prose--y'know, like what the rest of us suckers write.)

    My quarrel with Genoway's exact phrase would stand its premise on its head a little: is it possible to read and enjoy a truly remarkable expression of individuality that is not sterling in its prose-- perhaps because the individual is more remarkable than the prose? I think it may be. In fact, when the prose is sterling and the story told through it is not, that is when we have a scenario taht we sometimes call "precious": in essence, the quality of the medium (sterling prose) far outstrips the gravitas of the message (dull story), creating a kind of stylistic bathos ("precious").

  5. Bennett, I hear what you're saying on this one. There are a few cases where the story might be a improved in its persuasiveness because the writing isn't "sterling"—I mean, it's fine, but it's not gorgeous. Like I, Rigoberto Menchu—the simple, workmanlike prose, at least as I read it in translation, adds to the story's power.

    (And yes, I'm aware of the controversy around that book and Menchu's getting the Nobel Peace Prize. I find that Menchu's small embellishments don't—perhaps can't—detract from the wider truth that she captures about what happened in Guatemala. Eduardo Galeano said it so well in "Let's Shoot Rigoberta," his excoriating essay on the controversy: "The world is upside down if it is discussing now whether Rigoberta deserves the prize, when it should be debating whether the prize deserves her.")

  6. Donald Brown says:

    I like Bennett's idea that non-sterling prose may be well worth reading for any number of reasons. In fact, that was the point I wanted to get to, but got sidetracked into having some fun with Genoways' terms. I intended his quotation to introduce some thoughts on why I like reading students work, particularly students' journals, the epitome of non-professional, unpublished work. And that was to be offered in a context of why blogs are worthwhile though not really 'published': a view I had to get to gradually because my initial attitude to the ungrammatical visions of the individual was much like Genoways'. Maybe I'll get to that post eventually -- after reading this semester's students' journals.

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