Surprise, delight, and mastery: these together are the sine qua non of successful literary writing, as I’ve suggested here before. They represent the qualities editors are always looking for in the stories, poems, and essays we publish.
Yet there’s another essential criterion, one that precedes those others. Writers themselves often lose sight. Yet it goes to the heart of what makes an individual piece worth reading. Does it, we ask, really matter? Are its stakes high enough to capture a reader’s attention, a reader’s heart? Do they grab us by the throat so we must keep reading? Ultimately, nothing less will do.
This is no small feat. For daily, hourly, our journals, newspapers, and books beckon us. Computers and televisions bombard us. Not to mention our mobile phones with texts and photos and podcasts. Siren calls call us. (Recall the glorious original: Odysseus lashed to the mast, wracked by a wild desire to swim to those singers and their bewitching arts.)
We don’t generally risk such destruction with our choices, of course. We can—we do—frequently give in. But most of the time we resist temptation or risk being overwhelmed entirely, like a kid with an addictive video game. . . .
And thus the raison d’être of journals like the Kenyon Review and all our kin. Editors painstakingly winnow the thousands of submissions so that we can vouch for this poem by an author of great acclaim, perhaps someone we have published regularly over the years. Or that story by a first-time author, something fresh and astonishing. We promise they will knock your socks off—that these pieces are worth the telling.
Look at this issue’s special section on the “Hybrid Lyric,” gathered by David Baker, featuring powerful, meaningful work by such poets as Meghan O’Rourke and Gabrielle Calvocoressi.
Or the stories: Arthur bailing frantically as the flood waters rise from one floor to the next of his house at the beginning of Tom Boyle’s “Surtsey.” His mother’s bedridden and ailing. They’re going to have to abandon the house soon—but how to move the woman?
Or Evelyn, in Marian Crotty’s “Kindness.” She’s waiting, hopefully but far from sure, for her daughter, Anna, to show up at a bus station—she’s long homeless, and has spent years on and off hard drugs.
The artistry is superb, of course. These authors, some young, others not-so, are masters of what they’re about. But in each story or poem there’s something more at stake than a surface perfection. Something meaningful is at risk.
The stakes matter because literature ultimately is about change. Significant change. In poems as well as stories and essays. That’s the difference, ultimately, between literature and melodrama or sentimental pleasure. It may be a change in perception, a sudden illumination. It may be the soul-deep change of character brought about by dramatic collision. But significant change doesn’t come about easily or effortlessly. It must be realized through the effort that literature demands.
At its very best, of course, if it matters enough, the catalyst will change not only the characters of the story or speaker of a poem—it will burn an invisible but lasting change into the reader as well.
On the Cover
The bold textured illustrations of Emiliano, based in Milan, Italy, use repetition, a judicious use of line, and strong graphic compositions to define and communicate the concept at hand. His sophisticated illustrations have appeared in magazines, advertising, product, publishing, posters, children’s books, and newspapers. Clients include the New York Times, United Airlines, Business Week, Newsweek, Le Monde, and the Los Angeles Times.