“Today’s minor arts, I think, include theater, ballet, opera, symphonic music and literary fiction. These still include small audiences whose members are not also creators, audiences who patronize these arts in part out of an inherited feeling that these are superior to movies or genre fiction.
With the exception of rap, which has a mass audience, poetry has moved from the category of a minor art to a craft. In the course of numerous readings of my own published verse, I gradually came to the conclusion that almost everyone in the audience at a poetry reading is a poet or aspiring poet. My guess is that a majority of people who read poetry also write poetry.
Poetry in the twenty-first century is like pottery, woodworking, or the making of carrot carnations. Sophisticated verse was never a major art, and having lost even a small non-practitioner audience, it has lost its status as a minor art. At hobbyist conventions, celebrated practitioners of a craft address an audience made up of other practitioners of the craft, who will then go home and work at the art themselves. Poetry has more residual cultural prestige than carrot carnation making and other hobbies, but that is only because most of the poet-hobbyists are professors with MFAs, while there are no professors of table-setting.
The short story, like poetry, already may have gone from being a minor art to being a craft. When I worked as an editor at Harper’s magazine in the 1990s, many acquaintances would comment on our essays and features, but I never heard anyone mention one of the short stories we published. The short story writers whom we published were almost exclusively MFAs who made a living by teaching short story and novel writing at liberal arts colleges. I may be mistaken, but I suspect that the same group that writes short stories today makes up the majority of those who read the short stories that are still published out of a sense of cultural responsibility in magazines like The New Yorker and Harper’s.
The literary novel, too, may be on its way to losing its minor art status and becoming a pure hobby of the creative writing professors who produce most of it in their spare time, while teaching writing courses. Some time ago, I was surprised when the editor of a highbrow magazine and of a major book review, respectively, both told me that their favorite contemporary author was Patrick O’Brien, author of “Master and Commander.” You hypocrites, I thought. You don’t even read the literary fiction that you publish or review. You read well-written genre fiction on your own time. Goodbye, Jonathan Franzen, and ahoy, matie!”
[“BLA and GB Gabbler” (really just a pen name – singular) are the Editor and Narrator behind THE AUTOMATION, vol. 1 of the Circo del Herrero series. They are on facebook, twitter, tumblr, goodreads, and Vulcan’s shit list.]