Editor’s Notes: Not Opening the Gates—Tearing Them Down
Over the last couple of years one of the most popular features in the Kenyon Review electronic newsletter has been the column “Why We Chose It.” Focusing on some specific aspect of a piece we’ve recently published, individual editors explain what about a story captivated and surprised them, what strategy or linguistic felicity of a poem made it impossible to say no. The column attempts to peel back the curtain from the mysterious—and arduous—process of editorial selection.
In recent months, however, I’ve heard a different metaphor frequently invoked: that the role of editors is too often to act as gatekeepers. On its face the metaphor serves simply as shorthand for that same process of selection. Some authors, after all, are invited into our publications and others, necessarily, are rejected. In this limited sense the metaphor works, sort of.
But the use of “gatekeeper” also carries a political valance. Readers are concerned, rightly I think, that even today in examining the contents of many journals and magazines one discovers relatively few women or writers of color or other underrepresented communities. Given the realities of the American populace, there’s a matter of proportion here, and if it’s valid, then some editors are not merely gatekeepers—they are, consciously or not, barring the gates to entire communities of talented authors.
Having said that, I believe it’s increasingly rare. No editor I’ve met, at least recently, thinks in such terms, in such metaphors. A decade ago, perhaps, I was still hearing that our duty was to protect the “quality” of the literature we published. Talk about metaphor! Talk about code!
I objected then and I find very few editors saying such things now, at least publicly. I haven’t done a scientific (or even casual) study of this. If such magazines exist, I’d suggest you challenge them.
Last year, on the other hand, the Kenyon Review received over nine thousand submissions from talented, hopeful authors of every background and age. We take their work seriously—we read every story, every poem, every essay, always in search of the exceptional. That—the exceptional—ought, I believe with all my heart, ultimately to be the sole criterion for selection.
At the Review and for many of my editorial colleagues across the country, the real challenge is to include: to discover amidst the thousands of worthy submissions the story or poem that explodes with wit and drama and vibrant image. Indeed, as I’ve often said in these pages, our mission is to publish new voices, especially from underrepresented communities, alongside the distinguished authors we’ve featured, often for decades. Decades ago we may have discovered them.
Every day, of course, we also make mistakes, sending back work that no doubt warrants publication and celebration. Such mistakes used to haunt me. Over the years, I’ve come to accept their inevitability, but I am also humbled by that awareness.
My hope is that within a few years no one will even metaphorically imagine editors barring the gates of the literary enterprise. Writers, editors, readers are in this together.
On the Cover
Paulo D. Campos is a freelance illustrator who lives in Connecticut and spends far too much time in New York City. He grew up in Minas Gerais, Brazil. He originally attended school at the University of Connecticut where he studied Management Information Systems. However, during his senior year, he came to the realization that he needed to pursue his passion. Paulo promptly dropped out and applied to the School of Visual Arts in New York. He was accepted. Four years later, he received his BFA in Illustration and has been drawing and working ever since.