Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Kenyon Review is a Serious Journal

I’ll open this post by admitting to a certain degree of ignorance. I’m not proud of my ignorance, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that before writing this post I knew nothing of the Kenyon Review.

Somewhat arbitrarily, I chose to blog about this journal because one of my housemates and close friends during my undergraduate years was a transfer student from Kenyon College. I liked her literary tastes, so I figured the journal would be pretty good. Of course, had I carried this thought process one step further and asked myself why she transferred in the first place I might have arrived at a different conclusion. But, the Kenyon Review it was, and now to the actual post:

The Kenyon Review is a serious journal. I could tell when I looked at the cover. I chose to focus on the four issues from 2009 and they all had classy black and white photographs of literary looking people or literary looking places (or literary looking people in literary looking places). What is a literary looking person, you might ask? I guess it’s a white middle-aged man standing at a desk, or sitting on a sofa, or holding a copy of the Kenyon Review. Upon further examination of previous issues over the past few years I noticed that classy black and white photographs seem to be the Kenyon Review’s signature move (the cover in winter 2010, a special issue with guest editor Simon Ortiz, is a notable exception- sporting a crayon drawing of an anthropomorphized insect).

Each issue in 2009 had two to three essays under the journal’s self-proclaimed nonfiction heading. There are about two or three times as many short fiction stories and around ten or so poems. I thought this wasn’t too bad considering how in some literary journals nonfiction still seems to be considered an illegitimate child. I figured the folks at the Kenyon Review were at least trying to incorporate the genre, but after browsing the nonfiction articles more closely I wasn’t too sure.

Out of the eleven nonfiction pieces published in 2009 seven are about writers and writing. They include book reviews, interviews with writers, and literary criticisms. When two thirds of the pieces under a journal’s nonfiction heading are of the meta-literary variety, I become suspicious. I was planning to contact the journal’s nonfiction editor to discuss my unease, when I noticed that according to the staff list there wasn’t one.

It’s possible that I’m hypersensitive. It’s possible this trend doesn’t indicate anything. Or it’s possible the folks at the Kenyon Review consider creative nonfiction to be a satellite genre, one whose presence serves only to observe and comment on real writing and those who engage in it, i.e. fiction writers and poets.

This may sound a little harsh on my part. After all, there are four non-meta-literary essays in 2009. I could have chosen to focus on them. But this somehow felt dishonest, and I preferred not to misrepresent what seems to me to be the Kenyon Review’s take on nonfiction.

The first essay I looked at was The Mysterious (Un)meeting of George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway by John Rodden and John Rossi, published in the fall of 2009. This 22-page essay revolves around a chance meeting that may or may not have happened between Orwell and Hemingway in a Paris hotel in 1945 during the last days of WWII. “Great,” I thought to myself, “Could Rodden and Rossi (or John and John) have picked a more esoteric and boring topic to write about?” (The answer is yes, but more on that later.) If there is something more obnoxious than rehashing the literary canon, it must be more irrelevant minutiae about the literary greats (who happen to all be white men, did I mention that?)

Rodden and Rossi comb through all of the sources at their disposal to investigate whether this meeting actually took place. They contact Hemmingway scholars and Orwell scholars, look at the biographies of both men, examine letters by the authors to their friends and colleagues. All this work for a meeting whose actual implications no one really knows. It made me wonder. Who would find this topic so engrossing that they would actually enjoy reading this essay?

I wouldn’t. At least, not at first. I have to admit I found no interest in whether the meeting happened. I really couldn’t care less whether George Orwell met Ernest Hemingway in a Paris hotel in 1945. I could care a little bit if I knew what they said to one another, but even then not so much. But some interesting questions do come out of Rodden and Rossi’s investigation.

Underlying this entire quest is a desire for drama. It is the hope readers have that writers are not just human beings, but characters in their own novel. Imagining a meeting between Hemingway and Orwell is like experiencing a comic book crossover, when Superman meets the Incredible Hulk. It highlights the separation between the fiction and nonfiction of a writer’s life (and the nonfiction in the author’s fiction), and how obsessed we can become about discovering who the artist really is.

Of course, as the essay also highlights, this fabrication is as much the work of the artist as it is the obsession of the reader. Rodden and Rossi again and again point to Hemingway’s tendency to embellish and exaggerate, specifically his knack for self-aggrandizement. This would merely be an interesting trivial comment on the character of Hemingway the man were it not for the fact that all these questions of fiction vs. nonfiction are in fact an integral part of how literature is read. As Rodden and Rossi note “Whereas the Hemingway myth was both becoming a bloated, self-inflated media spectacle without underpinnings in Hemingway’s art and coming to overshadow his literary identity, the Orwell legend was being viewed as found on perceived transparency between his life and work and thus burnishing his reputation.” (72) In other words, how the audience views the artist’s work is consistently informed by how the audience views the artist’s life (and vice versa). In that sense a meeting between Orwell and Hemingway may not be so interesting, but what people read into a meeting between Orwell and Hemingway can be. Maybe. I’m still not convinced I needed to read 22 pages to understand that.

Night Hawks, a much shorter essay by Charles Johnson in the summer 2009 issue, is another account of a meeting between two artists- Johnson and the celebrated playwright August Wilson. This time, we are led to believe, the event actually happened.

At first the essay almost reads as a tribute to Wilson, who passed away in 2005. Johnson reflects on his time with Wilson, his appreciation of the artist and the man, and a description of a particular night they spent in each other’s company in Seattle. But what begins as a description of Wilson’s thoughts on life, art, and the state of black America, slowly turns into a nighttime adventure. The two writers step into a fictionalized (though factual) world, becoming characters in a story, complete with a crime scene and a violent climax.

This piece once again speaks to the need of readers to see their authors as characters. Johnson notes that “the public could know only the media-created surface, not the subterranean depths, of any artist.” Could we read this essay then, as an attempt by Johnson to break the surface? But if that were the case, why does his essay lapse into the world of storytelling? Does his telling, using fictional conventions, break the media-created surface or reinforce it? Perhaps this is an indication of the limits of fictional narratives in creating a real intimacy between the person in the text and the reader.

The essay could have been chosen for another reason, one that indicates the values of the Kenyon Review and its relation to nonfiction. Perhaps the reason why meetings between artists are frequently featured in the journal is because the journal views itself as a meeting place between fellow artists. And perhaps this is an indication of its view of nonfiction, the genre whose purpose it is to document and elaborate upon this meeting.

If that is the case, what kinds of artists are meeting each other in the pages of the Kenyon Review? Mostly older men, it seems, who write in private, who live comfortably, and who escape their wives and their domestic life by fraternizing with other male writers till the wee hours of the morning.

OK, I have to admit I’m grossly misrepresenting the journal here. I found the Johnson essay quite enjoyable to read. I thought his closeness and intimacy with Wilson was lovely and heartwarming. But on the other hand the fairly conservative description coming out of these stories doesn’t exactly seem to push for a radical vision of who a writer is. I originally wanted to call this post “crusty old men” but thought better of it. (Actually, I wanted to call this post “crusty old white men” but Charles Johnson and August Wilson ruined it for me).

This brings me to the final essay I reviewed, Bluebeard Bellow by Jeffery Meyers in the spring 2009 issue. Remember how I asked earlier if there could have been a more esoteric and boring topic to write about than that meeting between Orwell and Hemingway? Meyers must have been going for that in his essay comparing the female characters in Saul Bellow’s novels with the writer’s five wives (four ex, one widow). I found this essay to be a somewhat tedious examination of the way Bellow used the autobiographical material of his various marriages in his novels. By intertwining Bellow’s life and stories Meyers manages to not only illustrate how closely related Bellow’s fiction was to the nonfiction of his life, but also show how Bellow exacted terrible vengeance on his ex-wives by portraying them as evil harpies.

In the process, Meyers also managed to completely confuse me. Who is the real wife, and who the fictional? Which character was the fictional portrayal of the wife before the divorce, and which one was after? For each one of Bellow’s wives there are usually two corresponding fictional characters, and keeping track of around 10-15 people, all of whom I’ve never heard of before reading this essay became entirely too taxing.

Perhaps that was Meyers’ goal all along, to blend fiction and reality so much that the reader can’t tell them apart anymore. And I have to wonder who would find this interesting? Saul Bellow fans I suppose, or misogynists who enjoy seeing women punished on paper. Meyers does seem to relish Bellow’s post-divorce vengeance a little too much for comfort. Not that I would go so far as to label him a misogynist, but he does describe the University of Chicago in his own words as a “breeding place of brides,” (172) not exactly the most humanizing of descriptions.

In his conclusion, Meyers says that if Bellow “married Janis Freedman [his fifth and last wife] in the first place he would never have written these great novels. His ex-wives provided emotionally intense material and generated the anger, misogyny, and guilt that fueled his creative powers. He needed these witches to torment and inspire him.” This quote raises an interesting question about writers and the way they use, perhaps even exploit, their life in order to create their art. Is that really necessary? Meyers suggests that Bellow’s greatness came from these failed relationships and the literary material they provided. This may be true, but at the same time this supposition reduces Bellow’s companions from real live human beings into objects and caricatures which are used to delight us the readers, and I’m not too sure I’m comfortable with that. Not that anyone asked me.

I wonder about the meaning behind these three essays; are they really emblematic of how the editors at the Kenyon Review view nonfiction, or am I just judging them unfairly? They raise some interesting questions about the relationship between the lives of artists and their art, but never quite answer them. I would like to think that the Kenyon Review sees nonfiction as more than just a tool for writing about writing. I would like to think that what appears to be the journal’s adherence to a conservative canon (at least for its nonfiction) is a fluke. But I’m just not sure.


  1. No, I think you pretty much nailed it on the head. This is serious stuff. Like...Metamucil and...falling asleep on the Sunday couch watching golf.

    The Charles Johnson piece was the only one that had a pulse, that had any emotion to it - the only one I wished had been longer. And I suspect if it hadn't been an ode to August Wilson it would have never seen the light of day. That would be the great test - if you stripped the names out and resubmitted it, what would be your odds of getting a rejection slip?

    I thought the Hemingway/Orwell and Bellows essays read like extended abstracts for dissertations. Whatever the bare minimum of creativity we expect in order to bestow the "Creative" modifier ahead of the word "Nonfiction," I felt like these two strained credulity and read like academic work. Not that they weren't without their charms - just that those charms are a bit musty New England library tweed and pipe-smoking for my tastes.

    I will say that reading one of these and dozing through the other two makes me cherish my KR rejection slip that much more.

  2. Also - it is probably good not to use real names, since somebody back East right now is screaming - in their best Hollywood mogul impersonation - "You'll NEVER publish in this town again!"

  3. I dunno. I don't think that really all that many people will care. A good, honest post with serious analysis and investigation, even if it's not all positive, is more respectful to the writers and journals discussed than one that pulls its punches.