July 14, 2020
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By Elana Spivack ’17
Much of the unsolicited work submitted to the Kenyon Review, one of the country’s most respected literary magazines, goes through a first line of student readers.
Being a Kenyon Review Student Associate is a great responsibility. I’ve done the job since my first year at Kenyon, and here’s how selective the publication is: one piece that I recommended has been published out of the many dozens I’ve read.
While Review editors read submissions from well-known writers, I join other student associates reading contemporary poetry, fiction and nonfiction from what affectionately is known as the slush pile. I usually review pieces on my computer from the comfort of the homey basement in Finn House, the Review’s sunny yellow gingerbread house of a headquarters.
When I came to the piece “Space” by A. Naji Bakhti, I thought what I was reading was too good not to share. It’s a prized accomplishment of mine that the Review staff agreed and included it in the fall 2014 issue.
My statistic of one accepted piece can feel discouraging. Then I remember that it matches the Review’s selective standards.
Review Editor David Lynn ’76 P’14, a professor of English, began the Associates program in 1994 when he was hired to lead the journal, part of the foundation of the College’s literary tradition. Starting with two associates, the program now has more than 60. “The kids are the best of the best in every way,” Lynn said.
Each associate reads eight pieces per week from among 9,000-plus works received annually by the Review, which publishes six issues a year and updates its website monthly.
Associates must spend two hours each week in Finn House, where they typically curl up on one of the basement couches, laptops open, searching for an undiscovered gem. Sometimes it is silent as several students read, some with headphones on or coffee in hand. Old typewriters rest on filing cabinets, and a student added a furry rug in psychedelic blue.
I believe I’ve developed quick, accurate judgment in my basement reading sessions. Does the piece pull me in? Does the poem evoke feeling? Do I want to find out what happens at the end?
First-time associate Jessica Berger ’17, a double major in classics and English from Baltimore, agrees that initial impressions are critical. “Sometimes I get a good idea of how I feel about a piece only a few pages in.”
The Review staff works closely with the associates to make sure they know what they should look for in submissions, spending a lot of time talking about how to read pieces thoroughly.
The submissions are read by two associates who decide if it should go to magazine editors for further review. “The most difficult aspect of the position for me might be making final decisions about voting submissions up to the editors or declining them when they're on the fence between what I think is deserving and not,” said Claire Oleson ’19, an English major from Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Several associates have returned for careers with the Review. Tory Weber ’02, associate director of programs and fellowships, was an associate when 15 students read paper submissions and handwrote rejection letters.
She received about 100 associate applications this fall, and 30 to 40 were accepted to join returning readers. The staff recognizes that Kenyon students excel in literature and writing, which makes rejecting applicants difficult. “If you’re a Kenyon student, it’s already a self-selecting process,” Weber said.
The Review has added to the associates’ learning experience with Thursday writing and editing seminars that include speakers from the publishing field, Weber said.
For me and many other students, the program has provided a glimpse of a potential career.
Spivack, a double major in English and Spanish from Closter, New Jersey, is an intern for the Office of Communications and plans to work in publishing or journalism. She is studying in Spain during the spring semester.