News by definition is bad news. This we all know. Schools are underfunded, teachers under attack. Publishers are consolidating. Video of varied glow seduces or distracts our students.
Yet for those of us who teach and read and sometimes write, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we’re living in something of a golden age. This comes to mind as I glance with no little pride at the table of contents for this new issue of the Kenyon Review and anticipate the reading pleasure you’ll find here. (Indeed, it’s also a rediscovery, since often a year has passed from when I first read and accept these stories, poems, and essays.) Many other journals arrive, of course, every day, week, month, both in print and online, bringing a wealth of new and exciting literature. I turn to the list of books I’ve enjoyed just in the last year or so, from Lila by Marilynne Robinson to My Promised Land by Ari Shavit and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, to new volumes of poetry by Mark Strand, Natalie Shapero, the proofs of David Baker’s Scavenger Loop, appearing this spring, and so many others.
Walking into my office for the first time a few months ago, our new advisory editor, Ann Patchett, immediately began laying out required reading: the aforementioned Lila. Independent People by Halldor Laxness. William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. Deep, Down, Dark by Hector Tobar. Not since grad school have I been assigned such a daunting list of homework. More daunting still is the stack, the stacks, of new books I shall begin unstacking . . . sometime soon.
And this is encouraging, even reason to celebrate: the seemingly incalculable number of gifted authors, young and not so young, practicing today. Writing programs abound in schools and universities. Workshops (including KR’s own) are scheduled for summers and weekends. Each town, neighborhood, and city has informal writing groups. Simply put, growing legions of talented people possess the discipline and ambition to write. And write they do.
For all the bad news, New York does still produce a whole lot of terrific books. And independent presses are flourishing. In fact, nonprofit publishing may be a hopeful model for the future.
This, of course, is an area where KR has led the way. Even e-books and e-readers, however sacrilegious to devotees of paper and ink, offer new opportunities for publication. While the New Republic may be strangled and other commercial venues slacken, nonprofit journals and magazines strive on.
A different, tougher quandary, of course, faces writers themselves: how few publishers of any sort pay enough to survive on. Getting a sizeable advance or screen rights for a novel is as likely as winning the lottery. Never mind the income from stories or poems. There’s always hope in employing elves, zombies, and other kinds of technical prose.
Not that it was ever easy. But the days—three decades worth or more—are gone when an MFA might be translated into a good shot at a college teaching job. Fewer such positions come open each year.
Of necessity writers have long found other means to support themselves. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a customs officer. Everyone knows that T. S. Eliot started as a bank clerk. William Carlos Williams spent his life as a dedicated doctor. Wallace Stevens as an insurance executive. Many have been journalists, of course, but spending your soul writing for a newspaper or scribbling ad copy may not leave much juice for literary ambitions. (I wrote a great deal more fiction in the early mornings while working for an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., than I ever have since coming to Kenyon to teach and edit.)
Writers write. That’s the thing. And the act is reason enough: doing the writing. Defining oneself by success in publishing, chasing glory and wealth, is a fool’s game. Writers write.
—D. H. L.
On the Cover
Illustration by Rob Day.