About the Cover
Our cover design by Nanette Black
features the photography of Ted Rice. Rice makes pictures of people
for fun and profit. An English literature major in college, he credits
his success in photography to his contention that “everything
is a metaphor for everything else.” His fine art work has received
fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council and the Greater Columbus
Arts Council. His portraits have appeared in numerous magazines
including the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Fast Company, Newsweek,
Fortune, Raygun, and others. Rice reports that life is most enjoyable
when he can wring filthy lucre out of his personal photographic
What doesn’t make this issue special? It
contains the usual mix of a KR general number: essays and
poems and stories that surprise and delight—that meet no agenda,
that aren’t limited to particular conventions, that range from gods
and cannibalism to down-and-out artists in the out-of-season Riviera
to interviews with Li-Young Lee and Scott Russell Sanders. A rich
collection on its own.
Yet in rounding off the sixtieth anniversary of
The Kenyon Review, this issue also contains the proceedings
of the KR Celebration of Robert Lowell, held in Gambier in
November 1998. The occasion was marked by seriousness as well as
by great fun—a brief but vigorous community developed among
our distinguished guests and Kenyon students, faculty, and other
visitors. And that community manifested itself through conversation.
For nearly three days, we engaged in wrestling with the work, the
controversy, and the legacy of one of the twentieth century’s most
celebrated and influential poets. It was a heady, exhilarating experience.
And as you’ll see from the papers and talks contained in this (unusually
beefy) magazine, the caliber of talk was very high indeed—a
momentum gathered amidst the give and take, launched from the start
by Helen Vendler and Frank Bidart, that swept us along to the very
end. A fitting way, then, to mark the career of Lowell and the anniversary
of The Kenyon Review; a fitting way now to end the century
and leap into the next.
On a trip to New York this past summer to meet
with this magazine’s trustees, I carried along various items, including
the annual fiction issue of the New Yorker. I was looking
forward to the read, for in recent years these specials have included
some wonderful writing. They’ve been all the more welcome because
each weekly appearance of that magazine no longer boasts two or
three short stories, some forgettable, some of lasting beauty and
power, as in decades past. At most one hopes for a single story,
and sometimes finds none at all.
The Future of American Fiction trumpets
the edition’s cover. In an introductory comment, the fiction editor
explains the ambition and challenges of identifying “the twenty
best young fiction writers in America today.” Despite his many caveats—the
calibration of age (“Then, there was the question of ‘young’ “),
for example, and the perfunctory nods to talented authors necessarily
excluded from any such list—the arrogance is breathtaking.
But, let’s face it, the fame and deep pockets of the New Yorker
can indeed attract writers at will. If there’s one magazine that
might deliver on such a hubristic boast, it’s that one.
Sadly, the stories represented as “the future
of American fiction” are thin gruel. Some are better than others;
some are painfully inept. As a whole, however, they lack ambition,
complexity, depth. I suppose such lack represents, by default, current
fashion. What I want to resist is the notion that fashionable stories
are necessarily good stories, that they represent the “best”
in new writing as we enter a new century.
It’s unseemly, perhaps, for the editor of a journal
such as ours to critique so august an institution as the New
Yorker. After all, it survives as one of a mere fistful of commercial
magazines offering serious fiction and poetry—often perilously—in
a period when literary art often seems precious, and worse, peripheral,
to our society’s attentions. Yet the New Yorker undeniably
exerts a considerable influence on the American literary scene.
When it makes a boastful mistake in judgment—based on who’s
hot or who has a new book about to appear with plenty of splash—it
matters to us all.
Fashion, of course, has always been present in
the New Yorker. The luxury in days of yore of printing more
than one story in an issue allowed earlier editors to mingle different
registers, different ambitions. Gleaning what’s substantial and
lasting from what’s merely trendy often does demand time. And great
writers are—must be—deeply rooted in their moment, with
its techniques and assumptions and influences. Stories by Peter
Taylor or Alice Munro or William Maxwell, writers who have embraced
the long view of the traditions of the craft, have rubbed shoulders
comfortably with lesser pieces dealing with life in the suburbs
or infidelities in the Village or simply sporting new techniques
whose half-life expired while the ink was still wet.
My point is that good fiction, serious fiction,
must exist very much in the present, with its energies and fashions
and passions, but must also be saturated with an ambition, a scope
and self-awareness, rooted in the larger traditions that stretch
back even to those primordial times before the flourishing of M.F.A.
Each year seems to find ever fewer places to turn
for literature that aspires to beauty and resonance and power. The
winter issue of once-revived Story magazine, as a recent example,
will be its last. It seems critical to me that we remember that
what’s fashionable, what’s anointed even by the New Yorker, may
not be what moves us deeply, what’s lasting, what matters to who
we are as a culture of readers and writers.
—David H. Lynn