The University Press and Original Fiction

Until university press after university press after university press starts to publish original fiction, the burgeoning MFA programs are going to be forced to hire professors who publish a lot of fluff and worse — as demanded by the commercial publishing industry — or work that directly avoids many of the most vital stories of our time; and the fate, impact, power and overall quality of fiction — and the seriousness with which the wider culture regards it — is going to continue to plateau or decline.

For those who think it is difficult to publish serious works of nonfiction — and of course it’s quite competitive — consider how difficult it would be if nearly all university press and most independent press options were taken away and such publication only continued via the commercial market, where in fact a lot of serious nonfiction books are published. Consider what effect that radical change would have on scholarship, on creativity, on vital work. The effect would be devastating. This is the situation faced by the serious novelist today, by serious fiction.

Sure some good work continues to be done but compared to what might well be achieved otherwise, I suppose it might take a great speculative novel to fully prophesize the difference.

Until very many — and why not all? — university presses take fiction seriously by publishing numerous works and series of original imaginative writing the universities will be shirking a great responsibility, for as Noam Chomsky notes:

“We learn from literature as we learn from life…. In fact, most of what we know about things that matter comes from such sources, surely not from considered rational inquiry [science], which sometimes reaches unparalleled depths of profundity, but has a rather narrow scope. It is almost certain that literature will forever give far deeper insight into what is sometimes called ‘the full human person’ than any modes of scientific inquiry may hope to do….”

Such work is too important to leave to institutions driven by a profit motive, but such is the abdication of the universities today in the realm of imaginative literature. The abdication of producing serious imaginative literature is not total. If one can afford it, one can pay to enter contests to have a book considered for publication, and many colleges and universities have a journal that publishes at least some short pieces of imaginative work, but I would like someone to tell me what is more needed…another 100 third or fifth biographies of Jordan Letters, or a single culturally critical Iraq War novel? (Of course, university publishing should not be a zero-sum arena.)

Doesn’t it appear to anyone to be the slightest bit irresponsible for all the university presses combined, several years now into the Iraq War, let alone the prolonged build-up, to not have published even a single (as far as I’m aware) culturally critical novel about the Iraq War? One say that critiques and shines the so richly deserved hellish light on the personal and institutional drives to power that, as I’ve noted before, have built and maintained support for an invasion and occupation that has been judged to be illegal by the head of the U.N. and legal experts across the U.S. and the globe, and has had the predicted effect of increasing the likelihood of attack against the U.S., and was based on fraud as known in advance, and meanwhile has killed thousands of U.S. troops, and wounded or debilitated tens of thousands, and has killed well upwards of 100,000 Iraqis and maimed countless others while destroying their country? Where are the didactic novels, the social protest novels? Where are the lifesaving “muckraking” novels? Corporate America isn’t going to publish them. Are authors going to write them? Where are the thesis novels, the polemic fictions, the novels with a purpose? Or even the realistic novels, the info novels, the governmental novels on the scandalous nature of the ongoing U.S. aggression in Iraq? And the novels on a thousand other neglected and revealing outrages or public stories of inspiration?

Are such tasks for imaginative literature — fiction, drama, poetry — improper, inappropriately propagandistic, nontraditional, impractical? We can find such claims made virtually every day despite their being refuted again and again and again and again — such is the tremendous and perceived vested interest in imaginative literature that essentially serves the status quo, apparently no matter how unjust, even with much writing that appears or is said to be progressive, liberatory. Some of it is. But huge gaps remain, for which university publishing has a responsibility that it has greatly shirked, as has the government in general, let alone other institutions.

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