About the Cover
Our cover design by Nanette Black features Old Hanford City Site and the Columbia River, Hanford Nuclear Reservation Near Richland, Washington, 1986 by Emmet Gowin, professor of photography at Princeton University. A retrospective of his work, Emmet Gowin / Photographs: This Vegetable Earth Is But a Shadow, was published in 1990 by the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His award-winning work is represented by Pace Wildenstein MacGill Gallery in New York.
Largely by chance rather than by guile or intention, this issue of KR contains five separate book review essays. Reviews are among the hardest of literary species to snare, hence the element of chance. Rarely, for example, does such an essay rear from the stacks of unsolicited manuscripts. Instead it must be sought out and nurtured over months and even years, sometimes yielding a vibrant piece, all too often not.
After all, a review in this magazine must offer more than merely a writer’s judgement or impression of the books under question: we hold it to the same literary standards as all other articles. Beautifully written it must be, or course. Provocative too, and surprising: it must engage the reader in its own argument and narrative, even as it illumines its subject.
Sheila Jordan leads our staff in culling potential books of interest from the many publishers’ catalogs we receive. Often we seek to pair books in unexpected or profitable fashion, a juxtaposition that may strike sparks of insight. But the harder task is to identify writers appropriate to the task, and then to convince them—to beg, plead, seduce them—into taking on a labor that is often a distraction or deflection from their own stories and poems and criticism. For some it is a duty they feel they owe.
Others are attracted by the books we suggest, by a topic or a writer or a genre that kindles passion that can be satisfied only through language. Others are steadfast and refuse to be seduced. Wonderful books worthy of review—ones we’d love to feature—lie fallow on our shelves for lack of the right match.
From time to time, I confess, it is tempting simply to give up on featuring reviews at all. Reviews are the least glamorous of our offerings. Rarely do we receive responses. Rarely or never do these essays garner prizes or other notice. Yet one of the important roles of The Kenyon Review is, it seems to me, precisely to offer thoughtful, stimulating, and informative reviews of contemporary writing. It’s not merely that commercial magazines and newspapers have largely abdicated any real sense of mission and responsibility in providing reviews (as they’ve also abandoned publishing literary fiction and poetry) in search of easy entertainment and trendy tidbits to satisfy—whom? What reviews they do run are typically handed off either to colleagues or students of the author under review or, for the sake of some easy fireworks, to a rival whose views are known in advance.
The review essay, however, advances a conversation that is the very sinew of our culture. We flex it, speak it, in our classrooms and studies and late at night with a single light burning and a book—or KR—open as we read to the end of one more story. Although it may often seem that serious writing disappears into the ether without even the ripple of pebble in pond, we insist not. The review stands in for all of us as we read, as we converse in our minds with authors, as we join in the community of writers and readers that joins us, meaningfully, across time and space.