Has the creative writing industry created a “deficit of habitual readers”?

The Paris Review’s Editor-in-Chief on MFA Creative Writing Programs

In a short piece published in July 2012, The Paris Review editor Lorin Stein responds to a query from an anonymous aspiring writer looking for places to submit their work. Stein’s response is worth quoting at length:

“Dear Newbie,

We get asked this a lot. It’s a reasonable question, but it always makes our hearts sink.

Here’s the thing: no matter how many classes you take, no matter how much time you spend at the keyboard, you cannot write seriously unless you read. And that means, partly, reading your contemporaries. Their problems are your problems; you can’t write—that is, you can’t write for serious readers—until you know what the problems are. I could give you the names of some good journals, but—supposing they take your work—what’s the point of publishing in a magazine that you don’t already read?”

Under Stein’s editorial gaze, The Paris Review seeks to find and support new voices in modern and contemporary literature. As an industry expert, Stein observes a worrying trend where unpublished writers are more concerned with seeing their own work in print than in beginning a meaningful relationship or dialogue with fellow writers.

Stein suggests that this trend might be connected to the explosion in MFA Creative Writing programs convened at university institutions throughout the world. Writing, in this case, becomes more than creative outlet or cultural expression: it becomes an entrepreneurial business enterprise. He states:

“Whatever its defenders say, the M.F.A. system has created a surplus of would-be writers and a deficit of habitual readers—and I’m afraid it shows in the work submitted to us here at the Review.”

The emerging figure of the entrepreneurial creative writer risks being cut off from their peers within the broader literary community. But Stein doesn’t end on a sour note. He ends by assuring the ‘Newbie’ that their is a simple solution for the career-driven wordsmith: “This trend is easy to reverse, at least in your own life. Join the writing community for real: become a reader.”

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  1. Sorry to be long-winded, but . . . Excellent post/points, Rhys. This is something with which I struggle. I do submit to magazines and journals I don’t subscribe to (but I always try to read whatever I can find from them, chiefly online), but for me it’s because of (very) limited finances. Then, what I try to do is take any writing fees I do get (alas, pittances so far, although I really appreciate them!) and invest them back into buying books and subscriptions to magazines or throw in a few dollars for an organization’s Patreon. Unfortunately, I live in a horrible place (in this respect) that has no local library, save for one that’s just starting with children’s books. The library the next town over charges membership fees. Go figure! In any case, I cannot be more enthused about what you are pointing to here; to be a ‘modern’ (whatever that means) writer of any stripe (playwright, copywriter, fiction writer, historian/writer) and with any merit means you have to read your contemporaries and (I think) outside your genre, too. Who was it who said something like “read. Read everything you can get your hands on. I read labels…” (why am I thinking Faulkner)? P.S. Rhys, reading blogs like yours counts, I think, toward a writer’s required reading!

    • Thank you for your comment, Leigh. Yes, I think Stein raises an interesting point and I was very curious to see what others think. It can be tricky to keep up with all that’s happening in contemporary writing when on a budget, but I agree that it’s worth the effort and the investment (even if it’s on a modest scale).

      Best,
      Rhys

      • Definitely. It seems to me that people in academe, like yourself presumably!, would want more laypeople reading (at least some of) their writing as well. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt a writer of, say, ‘contemporary literary fiction’ to read a meta-analysis or some other scholarly treatment of Beckett or Joyce or Jane Austen (etc.)

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