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Kenyon Review Readers–duh!

Sometimes it takes years to see the simplest thing. Yesterday afternoon Meg Galipault, our valiant managing editor, and I were having a conversation about KR readership–how we may reach a larger, and perhaps broader, group of readers. That’s always a goal, of course, but it has implications for the content of the magazine.

Why is a larger readership desirable? A fair question, since we’re not aiming for commercial success. And the idea of little magazines, going back to the 18th century, has been that they should reach an “elite” and appreciative audience of discriminating readers. But to the extent that our mission is increasingly not so much to reach a small elite of readers but to keep the flame of literature alive for coming generations, the efforts to increase the numbers of those who enjoy The Kenyon Review are all the more pressing.
The temptation, of course, is to chase desperately after the same “demographic group” as every other publication–Generation Whatever. The young, the media savvy, the restless. So should our covers be brighter, a kind of eye candy that shouts out from the newstands? Should we publish material that is short, easy to digest–a different sort of candy?And in a blinding moment of the obvious smacking me between the eyes, I realized–no, that’s not who we are or who we want to be or who we’re publishing for. We want the readers we’ve got. Only more of them.

Who are those readers? Well, they’re old and young and in between. We know that from reader surveys. But what they share in common is that they’re generally well educated. They’re curious and thoughtful and interested in the written word and the challenging idea. Restless in a different kind of way.

The United States recently grew beyond 300 million inhabitants. That’s a lot of people. And we educate a significant portion of that population. Millions go to college and on to advanced degrees. I don’t believe that The Kenyon Review will ever reach the mass market–I don’t want it to, given the implications of dumbing down our content.

But even a small percentage of those 300 million souls represents a vast audience for literature, for stories, poems, memoirs, reviews, interviews, essays. Not to mention what we will be offering via the electronic wizardry of the KR website. Podcasts and blogs, archives and useful links.

And I know–I KNOW–that there are many young people out there hungry for this. I look at the hundreds who apply to come to Gambier for our Young Writers program. Everyday I work with our KR Associates and interns. They’re exceptional, no doubt. Smart, challenging, eager, talented, creative. They wow me day after day. They’re many wonderful things–but they’re not unique. My point is that many other young people in this country will balance their video games and text messages with an engagement with literature that matters.

That’s what KR will be there to provide. For our readers.