How does one become the editor of a literary journal? In truth, there’s no simple or direct answer. Many hopefuls, struck with the hankering, simply create their own publication ex nihilo. Others are lured or hired to the task. Thinking on this recently, it struck me as odd, in this age of specialization and certification, that no advanced degree exists in this field, no obvious path for those with this passion. Courses in editing and publishing certainly thrive at colleges and universities, but they tend to be one-off electives as part of other degrees.
Reading “as an editor” does indeed require a different set of skills, perhaps a different sensibility. In literature classes as well as while reading for pleasure we strive, consciously or not, to grasp some of the several meanings of a poem or story or novel. When reading as a writer, on the other hand, in a workshop or while studying the work of authors we admire, we concentrate on how the fiction or poetry works. Why, for example, has an author chosen to employ the present tense rather the past, the third person rather than the first? What does a formal poem attain in a particular iteration that one in free verse might not?
As editors, however, we ask different questions. How well does this poem work? Does it offer surprise and delight enough that it belongs in our pages? Does the drama in this story take a tack that’s new and different from others recently accepted? Am I even able to say no, or does this essay simply shoulder its way into the lineup?—sometimes it feels that way.
My own training was happenstance. During my undergraduate years at Kenyon College, the Review was in hiatus, its transoms shuttered by financial duress. But I came to love short fiction, and after graduating I fell under the spell of Peter Taylor’s stories. At the time I didn’t even realize that in the 1930s Taylor had followed John Crowe Ransom to Kenyon, as I followed him in turn to the University of Virginia.
In Charlottesville, somehow, I made the acquaintance of Staige Blackford, longtime editor of Virginia Quarterly Review. His offices were a glory—a suite of rooms in the elegant red-brick buildings and gardens flanking the famous Rotunda. What I recall these many years later was Staige only too eagerly dumping a first stack of manila envelopes into my arms. These were fiction manuscripts to be “evaluated” and passed back to him with my “recommendation.” How could he trust me or my judgment? Where did I get off evaluating or recommending anything? I look back in astonishment and a little shame at my totally unqualified chutzpah.
Not that I was bypassing a more formal gauntlet of training, testing, certification—no such process existed in those days other than reading, comparing notes with friends and other writers, reading some more.
At the Kenyon Review we offer weekly seminars in various aspects of literary publishing to our student associates. The course is not for academic credit, but the practical knowledge (coin of the realm these days is “experiential learning”) can be invaluable. Many of these associates go on into the world of publishing, and we work hard to develop their skills, among others, in reading as editors. The discussions are lively as we examine samples of stories and poems, sharing how we read them and how we come to final judgments. Disagreements abound, of course. These conversations hone the skills of professors and staff as well as of the students. Other editors (and designers and copyeditors) from farther afield often visit for these sessions too, or spend an hour chatting with the associates by Skype.
To expand their horizons still further, we keep stocked a lending library of many other literary journals from around the country. We want the associates to read widely as well as deeply, to acquaint themselves with the richness of the contemporary literary landscape—all part of developing their tastes as editors.
The KR associates have become essential to the many activities of the Kenyon Review as a literary arts organization, and the seminars are intended in part as a benefit of their commitment. They certainly gain increased skills and self-awareness and—who knows?—maybe a hankering to keep at it for years to come.
—D. H. L.
On the Cover
“Yoga reading woman” by Olimpia Zagnoli.