In the Service of Story
David Lynn has been the editor of The Kenyon Review since 1994. A new collection of his short stories, Year of Fire, was published by Harcourt in December 2005. He is also the author of the novel Wrestling with Gabriel, Fortune Telling, a collection of stories, and The Hero’s Tale: Narrators in the Early Modern Novel, a critical study. His stories and essays have appeared in magazines and journals in America, England, India, and Australia. David Lynn lives in Gambier, Ohio with his wife, Wendy Singer, and their two children, Aaron and Elizabeth. He is a Professor of English at Kenyon College.
Interview by Lisa Mecham
The Kenyon Review was conceived of during a time when there were only a handful of significant journals in the country. What did it mean to be a literary journal over 70 years ago when the KR was founded?
In 1939, the President of Kenyon College recruited John Crowe Ransom from Vanderbilt precisely with the intention of starting a literary journal. In those days, the literary community was much smaller than it is now and Ransom made a big impact rather quickly by working with big name writers and promising younger students like Robert Lowell and Peter Taylor. For over twenty years, he kept KR focused on advancing the intellectual and literary conversation of that era through high-level criticism and fine poetry and then gradually, through fiction. His successor was Robie Macauley who had come to Kenyon as a student in the early 40's to be one of those early promising writers working with Ransom. Robie went off and served in intelligence during World War II before returning to become a successful writer in his own right and then editor of KR. He was also a good friend of Flannery O'Connor. That's when KR really started to publish a lot of great fiction. Robie was eventually stolen away after a few years by Playboy. In the 60's, when people joked about reading Playboy for the stories rather than the pictures, he was responsible for that.
At the very beginning in the 1940s and ‘50s, two of the preeminent magazines were The Kenyon Review and the Partisan Review and I think that each of them represented a kind of political vision as well. The PR was a left wing, politically and intellectually engaged organ of what used to be called the New York Intellectuals. The KR was part of the school of literary criticism known as the New Criticism, which carried the notion that art existed out of time and out of politics. It wasn't conservative so much as it didn't want to talk about politics at all. We've come a long way from that.
It sounds like an editor could have a singular vision for a journal back then. Now you have a Board of Trustees, an Advisory Board, the university, and an English Department. How do they all work together with you to define what The Kenyon Review is in 2013?
I'm very lucky in the various kinds of support that I get, but what is the luckiest of all is that I'm given total editorial independence. Other editors have different ways of proceeding. There are some very good magazines, Missouri Review is one, where a lot of what they do is by committee. They get together in groups and talk things through and decide what's going to be published. My philosophy on this is that really good magazines represent the vision, finally, of one person. The ultimate decision on what KR publishes both in print and electronically is mine. But having said that, I recognize my many limitations and I lean heavily on editors whom I admire and trust, such as David Baker, Nancy Zafris, G.C. Waldrep, Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, Caitlin Horrocks (our new fiction editor who is fabulous) or Geeta Kothari. All of these people advise me and make recommendations, and you'd be surprised how often one of them will say to me, "David, this isn't to your taste and you won’t like this, but I think we should publish it anyway because it's really good." And I've got to say that 80% of the time in those situations I will agree and publish it, and then 20% of the time I will say no, that doesn't work for me.
You've been at the helm for almost nineteen years now. How has your editorial aesthetic changed over time?
I think I'm a much better reader now. Reading literature is like many of the things in life, you get better the more you do it. I've been better educated in poetry thanks in large part to reading it under David Baker's guidance, as he's an incredibly brilliant poet and reader of poetry. Then there's G.C. Waldrep who is also a wonderful poet but he has an entirely different aesthetic from David. So I love balancing them out. Tyler Meier and Sergei, they all bring different attitudes toward poetry, which I think is very valuable. When it comes to prose, especially fiction, I really trust my own vision. It's what I do and I'm very comfortable with it. But that's where I turn to someone like Caitlin, who is younger and really well connected and wonderfully talented. She has been introducing me to writers and stories that I get very enthusiastic about.
How do you know when a story is a Kenyon Review story? Can you describe that as something tangible?
I try really, really hard not to have - like The New Yorker used to have "The New Yorker story" -I try not to have "The KR Story." If you look at what we're publishing, there really is a great range from Amit Majmudar doing wild prose poem takeoffs on Asian culture on the one extreme to Thomas Glave writing very disturbing prose about the African American experience on the other. That being said, I'm not that interested in experimentation for experiment's sake. I like people who are doing fresh and exciting things, but it's got to be in service of the story. I don't want something that's out there experimentally just for the fashionability of it.
After all these years, I realize more clearly than ever before that I'm always looking for balance. Balance between publishing the greatest, best known writers out there today while also discovering exciting new voices and talent. I think we've been pretty successful at that. It's incredibly important to us. It's why we read the slush pile so assiduously.
That's a good segue to talk about the inaugural KR fellowships that you recently awarded. Tell me about that and how it supports new talent.
Some college trustees first asked me if the KR would like to start an MFA program and the question I asked myself was, "does the world need another MFA program?" and my pretty quick response was, "not really." There are a lot of them out there and it's not like good, young writers can't find places to study. The previous spring I had visited with some of the Stegner Fellows at Stanford and I was incredibly impressed by them and their program. But I realized that if we were going to do something like that at Kenyon, I would want it to be different. I would want it to have the KR imprint. So what I came up with was the idea that yes, we would bring incredibly talented younger people here post degree, but in addition to giving them time to work on a writing project, they could also get other kinds of training and experience both teaching in the classroom under a mentor and working with KR and the KR interns to learn more about the publishing world. So that when they ultimately go back on the job market they will be as well prepared as they possibly can be. I have to tell you that our inaugural fellows are phenomenal. They are such wonderful additions to the community here.
Tell me about your print journal vs. KR online.
We deliberately decided not to publish the same thing in print and online. I see KROnline as complementary to The Kenyon Review, with an aesthetic that is similar but distinct. The things we publish online tend to be shorter, for one thing, because people don't like to read long prose texts online. But the pieces are also are a little more out there, a little more chancy, a little more risk taking and they can also be more timely. I tend to think of what we publish as being timeless, but for example we recently published a couple of things on the Libyan election by Khaled Mattawa and we've had a great response. We also published a really brilliant piece about Mo Yan. I love being able to get stuff up quickly whereas the lead-time for the print journal is about a year. If I had to, I could squeeze something out in print in nine months but online I can do it in a matter of days.
Did you move willingly into an online presence? Some magazines seem to do it because they feel they have to keep up with the times whereas others have a vision for it. Or they only exist online. How did that play out for you?
About five years ago I saw it coming and I remember very vividly what pushed me over the brink into saying, "Okay, let's go do this." David Baker (who has been my poetry editor from the very beginning) and I were going crazy because we were beginning to say "no" to things that we wanted to publish, simply because we didn't have enough room. And our backlog was about a year and a half, which was way too long. So we started KRO to give us more space to publish great work and to quickly turn it out every two weeks rather than every three months.
Is the submission process the same for print and online?
Yes, it comes in and I make the decision about whether it's going to be KR or KRO. One of the surprises for me when we started was I expected something like 50% of the people I invited to go into KRO rather than KR to decline. I thought a lot of people would feel that the prestige of the print journal was so much greater. I've got to tell you that in the years we've been doing it, fewer than a dozen people have declined. And I think that's because they realize that: a) it can be put out much more quickly and b) it reaches a huge audience, hundreds of thousands of people around the world, and that makes it very attractive to writers. Writers want to be read. I think the people who said no were mostly in their mid-career and were worried about what this would mean in their academic world in terms of promotion and tenure and that kind of thing. Writers under 35 never even hiccup.
We're just scratching the surface of this whole online world. We now have a Kindle application that has been, in all honesty, pretty disappointing. We haven't had the kind of numbers we thought we would or that Amazon was suggesting, so I'm glad that we made a very limited commitment to that.
On KRO you are able to delve deeper into the work with author interviews and authors reading their work out loud. I especially like your "Why We Chose It" column.
Yes, that is probably our most popular thing we do. From the start, we wanted our monthly newsletter to do more than just distribute news about readings or try to get people to subscribe. We wanted it to have substance so we were publishing archival pieces and interviews and then, I actually don’t remember how it came to us to do one of these "Why We Chose It" pieces, but it was instantly picked up widely and it got a lot of feedback. So now we do that every month. I love writing them, explaining what makes something really work for me.
You select one piece that was published over the last month that struck you and you explain why you chose it.
Exactly. And the other thing that we've just begun is an email we send out on Friday's called "Weekend Reads." We put together a main piece that we've already published and the idea is: "Here everybody. We know you're busy and you can't read a big magazine at this point, but here's one thing for the weekend that we think you'll really enjoy."
That's received a tremendous response and it relates to the other part of my mission that I haven't mentioned to you already. This came to me only belatedly. What I've now realized is that my mission is fundamentally different from a for-profit enterprise. Yes I need to finish in the black but, however I bring in the money, the point of what we're doing is to publish literature and to have as many people around the world as possible read what we publish. That's one of the ways that KRO and all of these online efforts contribute to that mission.
You're pushing the envelope, which is exciting. Obviously not every journal has the capacity or resources to develop such a progressive, dynamic online presence.
Of course the other side of it is: how long are you going to keep producing the print journal? Which is in fact a lot more expensive to do. That's a hard question because we are reaching so many more people electronically.
Do you foresee a time when the print journal will be gone?
I don't know. I used to say that we would have a print magazine as long as I was the editor, but I no longer predict anything beyond a year or two. I think a lot of us love the "thing-y-ness" of the artifact, holding the magazine in your hand, being able to sit on your couch and enjoy the print itself. Whether that's going to be the case in five or ten years, I just don't know.
At least you're positioning yourself to be forward thinking.
In some ways, and this is not something that I had anticipated, what we're doing online not only complements the print but also justifies us to keep doing it. In other words, they justify each other and that's important to me.
How many submissions would you say you get during your submission period of September 15th to January 15th?
They're exploding. Last year we had about 6,000, and this year we’ll be over 7000.
Is the quality of the work increasing proportionately? Or is it just so easy now to submit online that people send in their work before it's ready?
I don't know if this is true of other places but because it's KR, the quality of what we get is really very high. I'm saying "no" to lots of B+/A- pieces that deserve to be published. It's a challenge that I agonize over. I'm so grateful when I come to something that is horrifically bad because it means it will be a quick decision.
What's it like when you stumble across a story that excites you? How far do you read before you know?
I call it the "eureka moment" and it's the single best thing in editing. Once, I remember sitting in my basement office with manuscripts all around and I was going crazy, almost brain dead. Then I picked up this story by someone I had never heard of - Thomas Glave, who at the time was an unknown kid from Jamaica, living in the Bronx - and it knocked my socks off. In fact, I did what I very rarely do. I took two stories from him right away, published them in back to back issues, and one of them won an O. Henry and the other was reprinted in anthologies. For me, that's the best part of the whole job.
But there is the other side of it too. The hardest part is always the ending and I can't tell you how many times I am reading a story and after ten pages I think, "this is great, I'm definitely going to take this" and then I read another five or six pages and they have blown it. They have painted themselves into a corner and they have no idea. Sometimes I can say, "you should do this or you should do that" but sometimes there is just no answer. They have made it impossible. And that is very frustrating.
Will you work with a writer if their piece is an A- or is everything you're publishing already at an A+ level?
That's a really good and hard question. If it's an A- of a familiar story, you know, of an aging parent with dementia and the children have to deal with it, I'm probably not going to spend a lot of time on it. It's not that those stories are never good, it's just that we see a lot of them. On the other hand, I had a writer who'd never been published before, E.C. Osondu, who sent me a story last year that was just a mess, but it was full of life and vigor and incredible writing about the Janjaweed militias in Africa attacking some villagers and it rocked my world. We went back and forth several times until it was right and I'm very glad we published it. I can take a risk like that.
I try not to send false encouragement. I don't want to say to someone, "do this and I promise you it might be published." Recently we had a very powerful story where the ending didn't work but I felt it could. So the other editors and I went back and forth with the writer and he sent back three or four new drafts and every draft was worse. To the point where we knew it was not going to happen. That's hard.
What about cover letters and the ways that writers introduce themselves to you? How much do you like to know about the writer ahead of time?
I think a good, clean cover letter is all you need. With our online system there's not even a formal cover letter, it's just a message they tack on separately. If they've got previous publications, that's always good to know. If they have a degree, that's interesting but not determinative. I've got to say that given the internet, it takes ten seconds to figure out who the editor of the KR is and I like to know that someone has at least made that effort. If I send one of my stories out, I send it to someone by name. Writers have to do their homework and as part of your cover letter you should show that you're a professional, that you know who I am, and that you know what the KR is.
How is each piece read and evaluated?
It's part of the job of our new fellows to sort the work as it comes in. If it's from a writer that I've published before or someone I've solicited or someone who has been in the KR summer programs, then it will come directly to me. Otherwise it will go to our other readers and they will pass it up the line to me.
In addition to your editorial responsibilities, you work with students as a professor in the English Department of Kenyon College. How have you seen creative writing students change over the years in regards to what they're writing about or what their perspective is on literature?
I'm very spoiled and lucky because Kenyon being Kenyon, a large percentage of students come here because they are interested in literature and writing and it's a great joy to teach them. There's one thing that I tried for the first time last year and I've been kicking myself ever since because I should have done it twenty years ago. It used to be that a student would write a story, we would workshop it, and then they would meet with me and I would tell them to revise it and give it to me as part of their final portfolio. Students being students, they would always put it off until the last minute when they were exhausted and crushed with work so the revisions wouldn't be very good. Starting last year I now say to them, I want a revision of this within one week of meeting with me and the result has been an 80% improvement in the revision, and not only that but now they are more fully invested and they will revise it again before the final portfolio. I'm getting work of an exceptional caliber at that point.
You are a short fiction writer and novelist yourself, how do you carve out time to write?
This past summer I was able to write two new short stories and that gave me great pleasure. I live a rich and full life, but I'm never going to be the productive author that I had imagined when I was a young man. It's not a complaint; these are the choices I've made. I get a lot of aesthetic value out of editing the KR, but being able to turn out a few new stories now and then, that is a real joy.
How do you decide for yourself where to submit?
That's a tough question. I mean we all want to be in The New Yorker, but most of the time, I don’t even try anymore. I submit to both magazines I know or people I know and usually I find a home.
Have you had to get over your own preconceived notions of being published online vs. in print?
That's a good question. I have been online. One of the stories I am proudest of was published in Blackbird. Mary Flynn, who is one of their editors, is an old friend and I admire her. I was happy to give her that story.
A midwesterner at heart, Lisa Mecham lives in Los Angeles with her two daughters and the dog that they suckered her into. She is pursuing a Creative Writing Certificate in Fiction from the the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and her poems have appeared inWordPlaySound and Emerge Literary Journal. Lisa is working on her first novel.