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 obsessions.
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. programs.
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