A controversial Harper's essay about the waning relevance of poetry is just the latest in a long history of similar writings—whose authors share a few particular characteristics.
I've suspected for a while that these essays, as a category, might somehow be rooted in declining privilege: Literature has never been a majority interest in America, so I've wondered if these writers might be projecting some kind of status insecurity onto literature. Still, until recently I'd never thought to look at the identities of the authors before. And I certainly never thought I'd discover that every last author whose work I had read on the subject would be a white male—or that all but one was straight.
Take The New York Times' Verlyn Klinkenborg, who recently wrote that a "technical narrowness" is responsible for the "decline and fall of the English major." A few months prior, J. Robert Lennon derided contemporary literary fiction as "fucking boring" in Salon. Before that, Lee Siegel informed us that today's fiction is "irrelevant" because it's too professionalized, and because nonfiction got quite good. Before him, former up-and-coming author Ted Genoways warned against the "death of literary fiction" in Mother Jones a year before he was accused in national media (perhaps unfairly) of having bullied a former employee at the Virginia Quarterly Review into committing suicide.
No less a luminary than Philip Roth made a splash when he said in 2009 that it was "optimistic" to think that anybody would be left reading novels in 25 years; in 2003, David Foster Wallace claimed that "every year the culture gets more and more hostile . . . it gets more and more difficult to ask people to read," which he blamed on the speed of Internet culture, lagging educational standards, and weak demand for "serious books" relative to Europe.
Before all of these it was Jonathan Franzen, a novelist known for riffing on the theme of literature's failings—its inability to change anything, its over-intellectualization, and its experimentalism. Then there are creative optimists like David Shields, who expressed the belief in Reality Hunger that novelistic fiction was dead or dying and could usefully be abandoned for new frontiers. John Barth felt similarly about literary realism in 1967 when he wrote "The Literature of Exhaustion."