Why We Chose It

Katharine Weber
February 29, 2016
Comments 3

Corinna Vallianatos’s story “Visitation” appears in the Mar/Apr 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review. Read an excerpt here.

Quite often, here at the Kenyon Review, we turn away gracefully written stories simply because they are “too familiar.” What does that mean, exactly? It means that the story possesses some combination of often-seen situations, easily anticipated events or consequences, and a predictable voice or narrative style. It means we have been here before and there is nothing sufficiently new about this variant to make it stand out. It means that the author has not surprised us.

When I read submissions for the Kenyon Review, I seek not only terrific sentences, evocative scenes, emotional authenticity, and a narrative arc that goes somewhere meaningful, but also, along the way, I want those little detonations of surprise and delight that herald a wonderful story. Sometimes a story seems familiar at the outset, but for only long enough to establish its apparently obvious situation or sequence of events before there are unexpected developments on the page that take the reader into new and exciting territory.

In the hands of a canny writer, a seemingly predictable scenario or set of what kids these days like to call “tropes” can be an asset and not a liability, because the reader can be lulled by her assumptions about what is going on and what will happen next, only to have the conventions of all those stories with equivalent situations and characters turned inside-out and upside-down in some inventively successful way. There is something particularly delightful about a story that shifts from the familiar to something new and different and strange.

“Good writing of any kind by anyone is surprising, intricate, strong, sinuous,” according to Margaret Atwood. All those words apply to Corinna Vallianatos’s “Visitation.” The story begins with the familiar scenario of a divorced father visiting his children:

Curt was in Bernadette’s Studio City apartment on a visitation. He picked the twins up, one in each arm, and crooned, “Do you still love me? Do you like me at least? You do, don’t you? C’mon, give your daddy a kiss.”

So we meet Curt sounding sad and desperate and uncertain as he pleads with his children to love him. What has happened to create this failure of connection with his family? The story continues:

They squirmed and kicked their pajamaed legs until the babysitter came forward worriedly. She was a junior at USC, her chest in its sports bra one large seemingly unbifurcated bosom, her eyes stuck onto her face like pins. Curt put the twins on the carpet and reached out and ran his hand down her arm. Her skin was cold. He had no interest, but he was pretending.

Pretend harder, he thought. He ran his hand up her arm this time, as if a different direction would change everything.

“Bernadette told me to expect this from you,” the babysitter said.

“She doesn’t know me,” Curt said.

“She said you’re a jackal.” The babysitter addressed the twins. “That’s like a dog, sweeties.”

The language here is as distinct and startling as is this collision between hapless Curt and his children’s hostile babysitter. We feel the possibility that everything is slipping from him. And now we are somewhere utterly new and different, anxious about what it will take for Curt to find his way back to his old life, eager to keep reading this terrific story.

3 thoughts on “Why We Chose It

  1. I saw a John Cusak movie in which the budding poet proved her worth at the end by getting published in KR. But the director was wise enough not to read us her breakthrough piece. It is a movie, after all, and no need to explain the usual arc, decades of incremental improvement with thousands falling away in a Bataan death march of despair.

    “Be all this,and then something more. Something to delight a jaded editor who has seen it all.” Too much perhaps. It is easy to lose yourself between despair and anger.

    The trees are bare and the jay outside my window is looking for the perfect acorn. Sometimes it finds it. And sometimes not. But it still has to eat everyday.

  2. Excellent, excellent points, but you do realize how this lit-mag rule has driven & skewed POETRY (and may I assume stories as well?)? Verse has become, lashed as it is by this “aesthetic” imperative, neigh, nearly hormonal urge, neigh, knee-jerk obsession, a SURPRISE party that is relentlessly turned by the non-sequitur and quirk twin cranks – turn, turn, turn in a widening gyre of the heavy-mental frivolous? Such that almost all the poems (and stories?) I read disappoint not by being truly new or risk-taking, but by being shiny baubles of well-polished nonsense of the easiest invention. Alas.

    Hope you will forgive this “crank’s” cranking up this screed. Anyway, it’s a great magazine.

    David Cummings

    • You make a great point about gimmicks and cheap thrills driving some writing. In the inexperienced writer, this is usually fueled more by ambition than cynicism. (We see and pass over a lot of those stories filled with unearned tricky gestures, too). But the opposite of “familiar” and “predictable” doesn’t have to be “well-polished nonsense.” It’s news that stays news.

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