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Interview – David Lynn


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David Lynn Interview 6/25/2009

William H. Coles

David LynnDavid Lynn is editor of The Kenyon Review, a distinguished journal of literature, culture, and the arts. He received his B. A. from Kenyon College where he now teaches, and his MA and PhD at the University of Virginia where he studied with Peter Taylor. In addition to numerous scholarly articles, he wrote the novel Wrestling with Gabriel [Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2002], and a book of fourteen stories, Fortune Telling [1998]. He is on the Board of Directors of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. In 1995-96 he was a Senior Fulbright Scholar in India. He lives with his wife and two children in Gambier, Ohio.



I’m here at the Kenyon College in the office of David Lynn. David is the editor of The Kenyon Review. This year is the seventieth anniversary of the Kenyon Review. The Kenyon Review has a new home, the Finn House, and the addition of the Cheever Room, which is an impressive and attractive lecture and teaching facility.

WHC

I’d like to thank you very much, David, for agreeing to talk to www.storyinliteraryfiction.com. I appreciate your time.

DL

I’m happy to be here.

WHC

I’d like to ask about John Crowe Ransom, who was the founder of the Kenyon Review seventy years ago. What was Ransom’s original concept for the Review? Was he trying to recreate The Fugitives in Nashville?

DL

The Fugitives was a group he was a tangential part of. In a lot of ways he’d already outgrown them and they never really had a single organ, as such, they were just a group of people who had a program about agrarian writing in the South in the 1920s and 30s.

Finn HouseRansom was brought here by the new president of Kenyon College, a young man named Gordon Keith Chalmers [1904-1956], who was a very ambitious and dynamic person. He had great hopes to turn Kenyon into national and international promise, and he and his wife, Roberta Teale Swartz [a poet] [1903-1993], had all along had envisioned starting an important literary journal. There were relatively few of them in those days, unlike today when there are hundreds and hundreds. There were only a handful of significant literary journals in the country. They came here with that ambition [to start a literary journal] and that was part of how Gordon Keith Chalmers lured John Crowe Ransom from Vanderbilt to Kenyon in 1938.

WHC

There was a Fugitive magazine briefly in Nashville. Was Ransom involved with that?

DL

I don’t really know. I know he was associated with the group but I don’t think he had any editorial responsibilities.

WHC

What was the mix in the beginning days of the Kenyon Review in terms of fiction, essays, and nonfiction.

DL

Very few stories . . . fiction pieces. Ransom wasn’t much interested in them. It was mostly scholarly essays, reviews, and some poetry.

WHC

Has your concept of that mix changed since you’ve been here?

DL

Well I think all literary reviews are a product of their historical moment, so when in the 18th century you had the “Edinburgh Review” [founded 1802] or the “London Review,” they were very much reflections of that period and they were almost entirely reviews of current books, ideas and affairs. So the idea of adding original creative writing came later. Now . . . you know when Ransom started the Kenyon review, there were very few scholarly journals per se. Ransom had a journal that spoke to a scholarly community that was involved with literary criticism, as well other writers and people interested in creative writing.

What happened in the nineteen sixties and seventies was a greater specialization; more and more journals aimed at a particular audience of the scholar and not the general reader. In the nineteen eighties, the heyday of so called theory . . . literary theory . . . that was especially true. And in the meantime, journals such as the Kenyon Review became more oriented toward creative writing per se.

What I’ve been looking for is something that goes back toward a middle point where we have a mix of creative stories, poems, and essays . . . as well as, interesting intellectual engagements that are aimed at a well educated general reader rather than scholarly specialist. So for example today, I’ve just accepted and article by Paul Goldberger, the great architecture critic [Pulitzer Prize, 1984] called “Why Architecture Matters” and it’s a brilliant discussion of architecture and art. And the challenge is there too. But it is very much for a general reader. You know, the intellectually curious reader, not a specialist. So that is what I see our role as more today.

WHC

Is there a conception of the “Kenyon story” in fiction?

DL

Absolutely not! There are so many journals in the country and the world and more and more of them are electronic; some of them very much have a predilection. For long time there was a journal called The Formalist [ceased publication in 2004], which only published formal poetry, which is fine. We don’t do that. I’m looking for the best, most innovative, most eclectic writing that’s out there. If anything I look for a variety as much as possible. I wouldn’t want there to be too much similarity in any given issue among the poems, or stories, or essays that we publish.

WHC

Are there common elements . . . I don’t mean to dig at this too much . . . but are there common elements of the fictional story that you look for?

DL

Well, you know, it’s really what the old Supreme Court justice said about pornography, “I know it when I see it.”

WHC

I see.

DL

And then I often say to people that I have a philosophy about this. That all successful art contains two particular elements, though they’re very general; one is surprise and the other is delight. That’s actually what we’ve put on the tee shirts for this summer’s writers’ workshop. “Surprise and delight" is on the front of the tee shirt. For me that’s a very important thing. All successful art has to surprise you in some way. You have to have a little bit of a gasp, a “gee, that’s unexpected.” Otherwise it’s boring, otherwise it’s predictable. It’s not going to work.

Likewise, the word delight is deliberately capacious. But what it suggests is not just an involvement of the intellect, but of the emotions. That you respond to a work of art—to a poem, a story, or a creative essay—with an emotional response that might be anything from tears to laughter. But both [tears and laughter] are a kind of delight as we engage with those things.

And lastly, there is a third category that’s of a different order . . . and that is mastery. I’m not going to put anything in the “Kenyon Review” that doesn’t reveal real mastery over the craft, over the strategy, over the skills of the particular work. That doesn’t mean that a young person can’t possess a certain type of mastery. But it means an absolute confidence in the way language is used.

Now I will say that last year, about a year and a half ago, we launched KR Online, Kenyon Review Online, which is at our website, Kenyon Review.org, and it does not reproduce what’s in the journal. It is what I say is a complement to the print journal. And whereas the “Kenyon Review” seeks to be timeless, as a matter of fact if you go through JSTORE as you can do now and look at our back issues, I think a lot of them remain as moving, as fresh, as powerful as when they were when they were first published. KRO (KR Online) seeks to be more timely, a little more experimental, a little more out there, a little wilder. So it has a different flavor to it than the print journal. I think, given where we are today as a culture and an international community, that is a good thing.

WHC

Would you recommend that new writers, or developing writers, write to affect a reader with an emotion.

DL

I think all creative writing involves emotion. To me that’s one of the defining aspects of literature as opposed to other kinds of writing—political writing, philosophical writing, anthropological writing, [which] can be very well written and smart and engaging, but one of the things, not the only thing, characterizes literature is an emotional engagement.

WHC

Sometimes it’s hard for writers to determine what their value is, whether they have talent or not. Are there things that great writers possess in terms of talent that cannot be learned.

DL

I do believe there is such a thing as talent. I do believe there is such a thing as inspiration. And this goes to the heart of whether creative writing can be taught. I think it can be to a certain degree. Good teachers can teach new ways of thinking about literature; they can teach strategies and techniques; they can help authors read in a new way, and think about their work in a new way. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual writer to make that little, but essential, stretch to the next dimension of surprise and delight. I remember after I’d been writing on my own for a couple of years and went to the University of Virginia, I was working with my friend and mentor, Peter Taylor, one of the great story writers in American history. After a few years, I went up to see him one day, I’ll always remember this, and I said, “Peter, you’ve been very kind and supportive to me and I appreciate that; I’ve learned a great deal from you. But if the time comes when you feel that I’ve gone about as far as I can go and I’m not going to be the kind of writer that I want to be or you think I should be, will you tell me?” Peter roared and leaned back, this great leonine Tennessee head and deep drawl and laugh, and said, “I can’t tell you that. Only you can decide when that moment comes.” And I think he was very right.

WHC

I’ve heard that Peter Taylor was a minimalist as a teacher, that he said very little. You were lucky to have him say that much.

DL

[chuckle] That’s right. Most of what you learned from Peter was in private or with a drink in hand. Not in the classroom.

WHC

Going along with teaching in a tangential way, you’ve created your workshops here at Kenyon with the idea of developing and working on segments of writing created here rather than the singular review of manuscripts, or didactic lectures. You’ve often state that this is working very well for you. Why is that a better teaching tool than the traditional workshop?

DL

Well, I don’t think it’s necessarily better. It’s different. You know, ever workshop, or college or university, wants to differentiate itself. So in one way, that’s the way we separate ourselves from Bread Loaf or Sewanee or other great writing programs. But also it’s my program, and it suits my temperament. Much as I like to sit around and socialize, I think adults who pay the money, and most of all, take the time—the big thing is time, not money—if you take the time to come to a writers’ workshop you want it to be as productive as it can be. What I try to do is exhaust them during the week, but also, ironically, energize them as well . . . give them a kind of momentum, not just ideas and things to think about, but a kind of momentum going forward that will carry on in their busy lives. That’s what we’re all about.

WHC

In the classroom setting, the technique seems to develop a great deal of camaraderie and synergistic interaction among the students. Would you agree with that?

DL

Absolutely. That is one of the great things of modern times. Where there is the large and growing community of people in the United States who are involved in literary pursuits. They form a great community. Yes, it’s most intense within the individual workshops. With great teachers, there is a special bond there that carries on after people go out into the world.

WHC

I’d like to make a step into discussing the MFA programs and the limited residency MFA programs now, and what they are teaching and how they are teaching because it is distinct from what the Kenyon workshop teaches, and different from the goals of the Kenyon workshop too. How does a talented, energetic, young writer approach the present MFA program to gain for their individual development? I say that because in MFA programs there at times seems to be a lid put on a student’s potential by the instructor or the quality of the program.

DL

Well obviously, there are hundreds of programs out there now and there is a range in quality as there would be in any pursuit. One of the most important things is that young people don’t immediately go to MFA programs after college. You know . . . writers need something to write about; they need lived experience. And most of their experience in the world is basically academic. If they’ve only been undergraduates, or been involved in some other way with academics, that really limits them.

I tell students this all the time every year. “Go live; go teach English as a second language in Japan; go work in a salmon canning-factory in Alaska.” I don’t care what it is. [Go] when you’re only responsibility is to put food in your mouth and a roof over your head. Use the rest of your time to read and write. I think that young writers need to write. And they need to read voraciously . . . and not just contemporary stuff. I think fashions change and it’s important if you’re going to be a serious writer to read voraciously to learn the history of the craft.

The other thing about MFA programs that I think one has to be very clear about is why one goes. What is it you go to an MFA program for? What are you going there to do? For example, programs reject this and teachers reject this, there is never the less, and always an implicit notion that if you get an MFA you jump through all the hoops, you do everything that is required, you [then] come the other side with a parchment in your hand and that means you’re a writer and you are employable as a teacher of writing. Neither of those is true. There is no guarantee. As opposed to when you come out with a medical degree, or an engineering degree, or a law degree, or other things, you put in the time, you passed the test, you can get a job in those professions, hopefully. Most of the time you can.

In creative writing, publishing has very little to do with what your degree is. It really has to do with who you are as a writer. And in terms of teaching, there are very few jobs and many, many candidates . . . and it’s hard. So you have to be very clear that you’re not going for those reasons. The reason you go for an MFA is for itself. To spend a couple of years engaged in writing and thinking and reading with other talented and committed people, both students and faculty, for the pursuit itself. That’s noble! That’s worthwhile. There is nothing wrong with that. But that is very different from going there as a career path. A career path is great but you can’t count on it.

WHC

In terms of writing fiction. You suggest young writers go out and live to find things to write about. Then it would seem the next step would be to write a memoir. The question is, how do you take life experiences and, rather than writing memoir, filter those experiences so they become great fiction?

DL

That’s a really good question and I’m going to give an answer that pisses off a lot of people. Memoirs are fiction. Memoirs, in some ways, are no less fiction that nonfiction. Anytime you take the raw experience of human life and transfer it first to memory, and then to language, you’re changing it. And as you change it, as you shape it, as you chose this perspective or this incident to recount, you’re profoundly changing whatever the original experience was. And you’re turning it into artifact. Memoirs have different strategies and trajectories, sometimes, than fiction, not always—sometimes it’s very hard to tell which is which. I’ll give you an example. There is a wonderful man named Don Zacharia, who is the proprietor of Zachys wines in New York (a very successful wine business) and as a young man Don was an excellent writer and he sent a story to the Kenyon Review back in the 1980s that was published a received a Pushcart Award, and the editors of the Kenyon Review labeled it as memoir. I found out later, because Don is now a wonderful, or was, a member of the board of trustees, that it was entirely made up. It was fiction. But because of its tone and shape, they thought it was memoir. So it’s a very slippery slope. I’m not going to say there is not a distinction between memoir and fiction, but I’m actually very interested in those works right now that deal with that boundary, that boundary between the real and the made up, between the fictional and the so called truth.

WHC

But for the writer seeking to write quality fiction, the tendency to write memoir through narrative description, through first person point of view, through trying to hold decision making processes to the truth rather than choosing the right decision to make the fiction great, seems to be a potential problem in creating great fiction.

DL

I’m not sure that’s true. You know Proust wrote À la recherche du temps perdu largely out of autobiography and memoir but no one questions that it is fiction. He plays with that distinction and paradox all the time within the work.

I don’t have a lot of patience with young people writing memoir, I have to say. I think young people writing memoir much of the time, not always, is a mistake. The reason for that is memoir, like much fiction, depends on distance. The narrator and/or the author need to have some distance from the story their telling in order to make sense of it. Most of the time, not always, you’re telling a memoir in order to understand it, not simply for the pleasure of the reader. Unless you’ve got some distance in time and space and thought and maturity from the experience you’re recounting, it’s not likely to be a successful memoir.

WHC

What is the role of drama in fiction?

DL

That’s a great question and it’s something I talk to my students about all the time and it’s a very hard thing to get them to see. The essence of fiction is drama. And the essence of drama is tension. Unless there is tension, some type of dramatic conflict leading to some kind of explosion, there is not a reason to tell the story. And this is something writers often forget to ask themselves: is this story worth telling? It may be beautifully written, in may be innovative in all kinds of ways, but is it worth telling? And usually that question has to do with the drama in it, and the stakes of the drama. The stakes at risk have to be significant. Something significant has to be at risk. And the drama has to matter, otherwise the story is not worth telling. And if that’s the case, no one is going to care.

WHC

How do you apply the same thinking to characterization? That you want the characters to be alive and not flat–dramatic. Is tension a clue for us in characterization? Is there something we need to look for in motivation and desire?

DL

That’s one of those areas where we get down from the more general to the more specific. Yes, you have to have some sort of characterization. You have to have character. Especially in realistic fiction, which is ninety percent of what we read and write. But there is no one way to do it. There is almost an infinite variety of strategies and techniques to make characters appear real. When I say we deal most of the time with realism, realism is an illusion. The typical thought is that realism mirrors reality; that’s not true at all. Realism creates the illusion of reality, a reality that a reader will believe in.

WHC

It’s a credibility issue?

DL

It’s not at all what the real world looks like. For example, you’d never write dialog that is the way people actually speak.

WHC

A question about hiring teachers of creative writing. What are the qualifications you look for?

DL

In the college?

WHC

In the college.

DL

Well, we have an entire procedure, a process, that we go through as we do with regular members of the academic faculty. We actually see them in sample classes. We want to hear and see them teach and then we have interviews with them about how they teach and why they teach and the strategies that they use. In creative writing, obviously, I’ll be looking at their work as well to see if it’s up to standards, sophistication, and the innovation that we would hope for. That’s different than the summer programs. In the writer’s workshops, I hire writers whose work I know, whom I met, and whom I like, and who I think will be successful members of the faculty.

WHC

Can a teacher be a good creative writing teacher without being a good writer?

DL

Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. The two don’t necessarily go together. I think on the other hand being a successful writer, to a certain degree, increases your credibility as a writing teacher. In some ways that’s unfortunate. Because I do think you can be a good teacher, you can understand how something works, and you can teach it, although you may not be able to do it yourself. It’s rather like athletics. Ted Williams could hit a ton out of a baseball, but he was a lousy coach. And it works the other way as well, the great coaches often were second or third class players. I think that’s true in creative writing as well. You may be good at doing it but you may not be good at teaching others how it’s done.

WHC

Is the key element of this imagination?

DL

That’s a little too general for me. I don’t know; I think it’s a combination . . . you know, teaching certainly involves imagination; it involves thoughtfulness about how to express things. It also involves intuition and empathy. So there is a lot going on that is both an art and a science.

WHC

As publisher and an editor–and now I’m referring to others, not "The Kenyon Review"–are you pleased with what is being sought and published regarding literary fiction?

DL

Well, I think on one hand . . . you know . . . you’ve got all the troubles of the publishing industry, both the commercial industry in New York, which is falling apart for a variety of reasons, and the nonprofit market where most literary magazines are, is struggling in the present economic crisis. And yet, and yet, and yet, there is an enormous amount of really great stuff being written and published. I would venture probably more than ever before. Far more than any of us can read. I can’t even begin to scratch the surface, though I try. One of the results of all the writing programs is that there are thousands of really talented dedicated people out there writing and there is an enormous variety of work being done . . . and a lot of international work coming into the United States in one way or another which is incredibly exciting. So I may have quibbles with this publisher or that publisher, or the trends in publishing, [but] the fact remains, there is great, great stuff out there.

WHC

As an amateur, it seems to me the publishing industry is going more to memoir and nonfiction—I know you don’t separate those—than fiction.

DL

Oh, no. I do. I think, if I may interject, for me literary nonfiction is just about the most interesting category out there. The problem with fiction, I don’t want to get too philosophical about it, but the problem with fiction is that most of the conventions that we follow go back three or four hundred years—literally. Although there is great fiction being written to use those connections, still there are times when it feels a little bit tired. Whereas literary nonfiction, although its had many different versions over the years as well, there are very few conventions per se. You can [enjoy] lots of unexpected things with nonfiction as long as there is some kind of shape to it. And I’m excited and interested in it, and a lot of what I prefer to read myself is nonfiction.

WHC

How important is the story and the integrity of the story in literary nonfiction, both in your enjoyment and the choices you make?

DL

As I say, it depends on the piece. They don’t have much story per se. They can be wonderfully interesting and impressive. I happen to live and breathe for story. Stories are the essence of being. I love them. But there are lots of other ways of communicating effectively as well.

WHC

What’s the role of Internet and electronic publishing? You’ve talked about KR Online. Are you interested in Amazon’s Kindle as an outlet for the “Kenyon Review”? Do you think Kindle will be growing in the future?

DL

I do. I think that electronic readers are going to play a greater and greater role. I don’t think they’re ever going to totally displace the printed book, at least for a while. Especially for things like travel. When you’re traveling, it’s really nice to have an Ebook with you to have multiple books within, to be able to read wherever you are. I think it is affecting bookstores tremendously, and I think it will affect commercial publishing a lot and how they are structured. But I’m a fan. I have no problem with the Ebooks at all.

Again . . . I think that what will happen with people who care about literature is that we are going to be more and more a niche of a largely fragmented society. I think there are always going to be people who read literature with a passion. And within that niche will be people who read printed books and people who read other Ebooks. I have no problem with that.

WHC

What’s the longest book you’ve read on Kindle? The basis for my question is the current difficulty of maneuvering into specific parts of long books. You can’t go to page 76, for example.

DL

There are little quirks like that. I read The Forgiven Day by Dennis Lehane, which is quite a long book on the Kindle and others as well. I’m betraying a bias here, but I’m hoping that Apple will come out with an eReader because I’m sure it will be more elegant, more practical, easier to use. These are all developing and those little hassles are not going to be a long term problem.

WHC

Are you planning to put the “The Kenyon Review” on Kindle?

DL

Yes, we’re pursuing that now. The only problem now is finding a way to adjust the format. It doesn’t happen automatically. We have to work with Amazon to get the format of the “The Kenyon Review” into the Kindle.

WHC

I’m looking forward to future sessions at Kenyon. Is there any expansion planned for the creative writing programs in the future? New sessions? New locations?

David LynnDL

We’ve talked about all of that. The KR programs have grown enormously over the last four or five years. We are at the maximum of what we can do in our current dimensions. So we are talking now about expanding to other sites, the numbers of the programs, possible starting a high quality MFA program. But anything like that will require significant increases in staff and resources, which may happen, but we’re just in the beginning stages of talking about it.


WHC

I’d like to thank you very much for participating in this session.

DL

My pleasure, Bill. Great questions. I really enjoyed it.

WHC

Thanks very much.

DL

Thank you.


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