As one of the most respected names in literary journals, the Kenyon Review has a 72-year history of providing insights into the leading edge of contemporary literature. Contributing to its general prestige is the growing list of now prominent authors who found a bit of a start among its highly competitive pages. Names like Woody Allen, Robert Penn Warren, Derek Walcott, Thomas Pynchon, Flannery O’Conner, and Maya Angelou all have appeared in it, however auspiciously, at an early point in their careers. Understandably, some of these names sound more familiar than the others, but each represents a significant cultural personality, one whose influence began in the bygone decades of pre-internet card catalogs, and exists now amongst the reams of instantly gratified bloggers and opinionators that populate the Web. So, the crying question is this: Given the state of the world then, let’s say Spring of 1960, and the world now, what are the biggest differences in what the Review likes to publish?
Spring of 1960 stands out in the Review’s history because it signaled the beginning of a career in American authorship that contends with the canon of literary legends, even while it relishes its ability to muck around in the basement shenanigans of the carefree masses. Who other than Thomas Pynchon could write a book like Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), a work so perilously ambitious that it’s been likened in scope to Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) while also being hailed as “obscene” and “unreadable” in the same breath?
But, expectedly, Pynchon’s ambitions appeared early. Publishing the story Entropy in the Review’s second-quarter edition in 1960, he made it quite clear that he did not intend to make his work “easy.” The intellectual scope of Entropy spans from the party lives of enlisted men, college coeds, and an older man’s desire to save a bird’s life, to music theory and notation, historical origin stories, and thermodynamics, specifically, with a nod at its title, the concept of entropy. The vast web of connections that arise from these elements all clamor for scrutiny, both of the story and the mind of the author who could have penned such a thing. Of course the criticism can be made that he takes a Concept and creates characters around that concept: sacrificing depth of character for depth of theory. But similar things have been said of most postmodernists.
The atmosphere of the current Review hangs in a much different shade. In its first release of this year, Volume 33 Number 1, the Review published the winner and two runners-up of its Short Fiction Contest. The stories, written by Megan Anderegg Malone (Death Threat), Christopher Feliciano Arnold (Salt), and Diana Kole (Listened), all ring much more prominently with the current literary trends, most noticeably the experience-driven fictional memoir. This medium owes many thanks to the spreading interest in postcolonial studies, and the overwhelming sensation that arises from such a medium is that this happened to this person. Whether or not it actually did is something that belongs to the author and those closest to him or her, but the genre gains credit from the fact that readers assume an authenticity or reality to the actions in the story.
Disregarding any questions as to the actual merit of either Pynchon’s or the current winners’ styles (since both are quite compelling), the residual feelings that linger after reading both types of story are these:
- a.) Pynchon and his contemporaries are clearly more interested in shattering our expectations and do so with lofty intellectual ideas and clever, heavily worded lines, and
- b.) Malone, Arnold, and Kole all contain a tone of voice that stands as a good representative for the rest of the genre: somber, reverential, and guarded. Emotionally, these stories take greater risks, simply because they inspire communicable emotions and an empathetic vulnerability. However, stylistically, no new ground has been broken: they’re straightforward, pleasant, and unchallenging.
So, some grounded advice for any local Richmond authors looking to get published, do not write about the most horrible thing that has ever happened to you. Write a list of the top 10 most horrible things, and then write stories about numbers five through eight. For any local authors looking to challenge the ideas of the current literary elite, write your story, but be prepared to feel a little behind the times, even if you’re certain you’re looking forward.