M. Buckner: Who Reads Nowadays Anyways?

On my way to class every morning I walk by Fortnight’s rack in Mason Hall. Usually the stack of magazines on the rack is pretty tall, but day by day I watch it slowly vanish. Lately I’ve been wondering: who reads Fortnight anyway? Who are these students taking the magazines off the rack?

Or, more generally, who reads at all nowadays anyways?

I like to consider myself an avid reader, but if I wasn’t on the Fortnight staff itself, I wouldn’t read Fortnight. Last year’s Xylem has been sitting on my desk since the beginning of fall semester. I’ll probably never read it. I’ve never read The Gargoyle. I’ve only read like four articles from The Michigan Daily. I’ve never read The Every Three Weekly. Who reads all these student publications? I’m an English major and a self-proclaimed avid reader; if I don’t read all this stuff, who does? is what I find myself asking every morning as the pile of magazines on the Fortnight rack mysteriously disappears (and “mysteriously disappears” is the correct way to describe it because, interestingly, I’ve never actually seen a student taking an issue of Fortnight off the rack; the magazines just disappear seemingly organically—it’s like they naturally decay and evaporate into the air after sitting on the rack for a week or two.  Maybe Fortnight’s readers are some kind of weird phantom students who hang out in Mason Hall at like 3 a.m. and only take magazines when there’s nobody around. Or maybe there’s like a crew of night janitors who are all really into poetry or something.)

I’ve got like twenty books gathering dust under my bed. I want to read them, but I just don’t have the time. I spend all my time reading stuff for my classes, so I rarely have time to read for pleasure. What kind of UofM student has time to read literary stuff for pleasure anyways? All the UofM students I know are absurdly busy: classes, clubs, meetings, homework, etc. etc. The idea of a student who takes the time—who has the time—to read stuff for pleasure, especially student-published amateur stuff, both fascinates and boggles me. My fantasy is that one day I’ll catch one of these mythic student readers coyly grabbing the latest Fortnight off the rack, and she’ll have a classically bookish appearance (glasses, hair tied back, olive green sweater, etc.) and be the most intelligent, well-read person that I’ve ever met, and we’ll get married.

In my fiction class we’ve been assigned four stories from The Best American Short Stories 2010 so far, but I read all twenty stories of the collection during the first two or three weeks of the semester in a sort of half-hearted attempt to prove to myself that I’m an avid reader. (I have a strange fear of not being an “avid reader” and often go on reading binges in order to convince myself that I am, in fact, an “avid reader.” Sometimes this gives me a really nasty, rapacious feeling when I read stuff; it’s like I’m consuming the book, not reading it.) I thought most of the stories in the collection were pretty bad. I enjoyed maybe two of the stories.

But what was really bad about The Best American Short Stories 2010 was the foreword. The foreword was seven pages of lamentations about the state of the short story, statistics about dying literary magazines, and pathetic dithering about whether the internet and technology are good or bad things for literature—phrases like “the death of print” get thrown around. At one point the foreword urges the reader, “Subscribe to one literary journal, either paper or online. Buy a short story collection by a young author. We must support our magazines if we are to support our talented new writers. We must supportblahblahblah etcetcetc.” I thought this foreword was tasteless, pathetic, self-righteous, and obnoxious. And it seemed especially taseteless/pathetic/self-righteous/obnoxious because the story collection itself wasn’t that great—I enjoyed maybe two of the stories. Why should I subscribe to a literary journal if 90% of the best of literary journals, the stuff that was included in TBASS 2010, didn’t interest me?

Because I have very limited time to read for pleasure, I’m very picky about what I read. I’ve been able to find a decent amount of contemporary authors that interest me, but most of the stuff being written nowadays bores the shit out of me. It seems like the world of literature is in a drought.

While it’s clear that readership is dwindling and that literary fiction and poetry are currently marginalized, I don’t think people aren’t reading because they’re bad, stupid, cultureless illiterates. Rather, I think people aren’t reading contemporary stuff because nowadays bookstores and literary magazines are oversaturated with boring, shitty stories and poems. TBASS 2010’s foreword seemingly blames the reader for the decline in readership. I blame the authors. (Also, I blame college life for being too absurdly time-consuming.)

In the words of one relatively recent author, “Literary fiction and poetry are real marginalized right now. There’s a fallacy that some of my friends sometimes fall into, the ol’ ‘The audience is stupid. The audience only wants to go this deep. Poor us, we’re marginalized because of TV, the great hypnotic blah, blah.’ You can sit around and have these pity parties for yourself. Of course this is bullshit. If an art form is marginalized, it’s because it’s not speaking to people. One possible reason is that the people it’s speaking to have become too stupid to appreciate it. That seems a little easy to me.”

Or, in the words of Fortnight’s David Kinzer himself, responding to Sonora Review’s recent interview question, “How do you feel about literary journals in general: simply a necessary means to an end, or something more worthwhile than even anthologies these days?” David replied, “I think they’re unnecessary and result in nothing.  Pretty fun, though.” And when Sonora asked, “Do you think literary journals are endangered?” David replied, “Journals, maybe. Literature, never. And who really cares if the stuff is bound or not?  If it gets to the point that we can’t afford a print edition, we’ll still design the best lit mag we can and then tell our writers to buy some glossy paper for their printers.”

Good words, David.

And keep reading, you phantom readers taking the Fortnights off the rack, whoever you are.


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