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The Little Magazine in America – II

On Thursday we had the first full class of my new course on the Little Magazine in America. I’ve gone from a vague terror about wading into a topic about which I know only a number of disconnected bits and pieces, to real enthusiasm. The subject is timely, fascinating in and of itself, and bears on the future of literature, reading, little magazines, and, certainly, on the future of The Kenyon Review.

Melanie Maksin, a librarian who is helping as a research liaison for the course, brought in some bound copies of the earliest true literary journals in English: first came The Edinburgh Review in 1802. It was founded by a handful of Scottish lawyers, and was intended as a serious review of contemporary literature, inflected to be sure with a strong Whig (reformist) political inclination. Which, naturally enough, soon spawned an inevitable rival, The Quarterly Review, published in London, with an equally partisan but Tory bent. Sound familiar?The structure of the class will be innovative. Rather than follow a straight historical arrow through the semester from those early days to the present, we will work back and forth, creating a dialogue between past and present. So yesterday, after looking briefly at the ur journals, we brought three full cartons of contemporary literary magazines from the Kenyon Review office into the class. I culled through them at random, considering these magazines, large and small, famous and not so, and spinning them out across the table.

We discussed covers–what does a good cover do? We discussed authors who appeared in many places and those writers who are lesser known. What a wonderful exercise! There are some 600 literary journals in America today. KR can afford to exchange copies with only a relative handful of them. But what a variety of looks and aesthetics, of missions and aspirations!

I gave a short and impromptu history of the Kenyon Review, and how much happenstance plays a role. Our signature covers, for example, came about as a cost-saving measure 13 years ago when we were trying to save the magazine. Now, these classic and classy photographs (they appear as black and white but are actually duo-tone, which is what makes the contrasts so rich and dramatic) have become a signature. And yet–do these elegant covers stand out enough on bookstore shelves? Do they make browsers want to buy? Such are the questions we can never escape.

Next time two groups of the students will make presentations–we’re in this together!–one on The Edinburgh Review, the other on The Quarterly Review. I can’t wait. I’m sure I’ll learn a lot.
Afterwards, we’ll discuss the four stories in the current issue of KR and I’ll ask a question of my students that I’ve never asked before. Not “what does this story mean?” as I might do in a literature class. Not “how does this story work?” as I’d certainly do in a fiction workshop. But “what makes this story worth publishing?” Should be fun.

Students will be doing research and presentations throughout the semester, including significant delving in the treasure trove archives of The Kenyon Review. Instead of a traditional essay, their final project will be a collaborative display and presentation in the Special Collections room of the Kenyon Library.