December 27, 2011
As it stands, the fiction crew has completed two phone conferences this reading period as part of the selection process for Versal.
To repeat the caveat I’ve specified ad nauseam to every blog post I’ve written on this dear blog, this is my first go as an editor for the journal. Knowing the quality of the fiction selected for inclusion in previous issues, I figured rightly that the curating process would be a vigorous exercise.
What I couldn’t anticipate was the dynamics of the fiction team.
First, let me explain how we choose the pieces that are debated at the roundtable.
Each editor is given a batch of ten stories to read. Editors usually do one of two things: reject the piece outright or send the piece to another editor if they like it, but want another opinion. If the second reader likes the piece they send it back to the original reader suggesting that everyone gets a chance to read the work. The third option, if a story completely blows the wool socks off the first reader, is to escalate the story to the entire fiction team for consideration.
Like the first reads, we work in batches of ten stories for the escalation roundtable. Since we are spread across the United States and Europe, we meet via phone conference on Skype.
The first phone conference for issue ten, and the first I ever participated in, was intimidating. I felt a certain amount of pressure to perform grandly. I wanted to be confident, stick to my guns, and sound intelligent; and all my fears were at odds with the need to be confident.
What I learned quickly was that there is no room at the Versal editing table for a solitary ego.
During the Skype conversation the fiction team carefully combed over each piece discussing meaning, intentions of the author, characters and setting (if necessary). Etc. I was surprised to find that no one was dominating the conversation, nor was anyone particularly harsh about glaring errors in a piece. Weaknesses were even weighed against a piece's strengths, although, every editor desired a certain amount of perfection. There were times where a piece that was put to the roundtable wasn't suitable, even for the editor who sent it to the escalation in the first place. These pieces had merits that we discussed–it wouldn’t have made it to the roundtable if there wasn’t something that worked–but were ultimately dismissed. After three hours of discussing we had chosen, if I remember correctly, one piece for inclusion in the journal and several others we would read again at the next roundtable.
This wasn’t a mark of an indecisive team. We had strong pieces up for consideration and this made the selection process strenuous. The quality of the pieces we are receiving are extremely high. We feel extremely proud to be able to read such compelling work.
In regards to the selections I was for or against, I usually had a rather strong opinion that I brought to the table, but on occasion, I was swayed during the discussion. If the piece was well argued, I sometimes found myself agreeing with the opposite camp, no matter how much it hurt my pride.
Again, pride and ego have no place in Versal.
Robert mentioned during our meeting something that I found incredibly compelling; no editor's opinion was completely ignored. At least one story that an editor chose for inclusion in the magazine was selected. So, whether or not the story I really wanted was selected for the journal (one in particular, which I felt I was defending alone, did not) at least one story I said yes to would be fit to see print.
The democratic selection process creates a sort of tension within the team which prevents us from getting comfortable. We have to be on our toes, ready to defend our position, and be equally ready to let some of the fights go if. If we were to all get along and become comfortable, we might also find ourselves getting lazy. This would most likely result in us producing a boring, unpalatable journal.
Knowing that I could influence the position by being myself was a satisfying and welcoming release.
December 21, 2011
There are a crap-ton of lists out right now and they make my eyes burn. Best of's, top tens and whatnot. And gift ideas for writers that involve things I would personally never use. But maybe I'm just scroogey.
But then I was thinking, what's great is things that gift both ways. You know, when you go to your favorite local boutique and get some rare artisan jewelry from a local artist, and your girlfriend is like so happy that you thought to buy her something girly instead of getting her a new external harddrive, and your local boutique is thrilled to stay in business one more day.
So here's the only list I'll make this year. Ten journals to subscribe to or buy, as a gift for yourself or for a literary loved one. Obviously I'd love you to subscribe to Versal, too, but we're not the only self-supported journal of awesomeness out there. And obviously I love a lot of journals, but I'm keeping this list to those that are self-supported (as far as I can tell), are not university funded (as far as I can tell), and which you may not have heard about yet. Because it's important that the love be spread, and spread widely.
Remember Journal Porn?
The list is alphabetized.
Also, please don't mistake these blurbs for blurbs. Or reviews. They're just things I'm thinking outloud, which is mostly nonsense.
1913 a journal of forms: It's no secret that Versal is a big fan of 1913. If two journals should get married, it should be these two. Different personalities, maybe, but Paula Abdul knows what I'm talking about (and so do you, Doller!).
Artifice: I first came across Artifice at AWP Denver because they had a table right across from us. You could buy one of two versions of their first edition: black or white. It made me think of the Dutch raves at the Heineken Music Hall.
A Tale of Three Cities: Brand new, still steaming off the press, this journal of work coming out of the grand European trifecta (Paris-London-Berlin) will make you feel like you're on the overnight from NYC. You might see Greenland. I haven't gotten my hands on an actual copy yet, but I suspect its literary innards will rock your socks off.
Bateau: Get a full year of this press's makings, including their annual lit mag, which I just love to hold. I'll just say it's almost a fetish.
Caketrain: This journal may have the old school size and shape, but its covers and internal design - not to mention the work! - prove anything but the traditional. Their latest #9 is just out, too, and has work by, well, me in it.
Her Royal Majesty: Some things are just really pretty. This little journal out of Paris (originally Halifax) is an exciting, newish project that is sure to go places. "Go places". What a euphemism. In other words, it's neat.
Jubilat: A wide array of beautiful, well displayed poetry. You will probably cry when you read an issue, and that's ok, because it'll be there to comfort you when you're done.
The Lumberyard Magazine: The folks behind this journal are up to a lot, and winning awards while they're at it, and we think you'll love how they get a little freaky with the page.
Tarpaulin Sky: Hurricane Irene has put this press on serious hold, and a lot of its inhouse stock was lost to floods. SPD has a lot of their titles, but if you're looking for back issues of their awesome lit mag, pop Christian a mail. He probably knows where you can find it.
Tuesday: An Art Project: This unbound, letterpressed journal of poems, photographs and prints is published biannually thanks to the genius of Jennifer S. Flescher. Journal as object as art? Yes.
Happy holidays, everyone, from all of us here at Versal.
November 21, 2011
Finally getting around to posting some pics from our trip and reading at IVY Writers. Thanks to our friend and fellow editor, poet and critic Jennifer K. Dick and contributor Rufo Quintavalle for organizing an excellent evening.
|Megan, Jane and Anna|
|Jen introduces the evening|
|Hey editors! We saw this when we were in DC too!|
|Kate & Tonnie|
|Shayna in the wool room (Plight, Joseph Beuys)|
|Megan, Shayna and Anna in the Infinity Room, Yayoi Kusama|
November 15, 2011
Ahead of the meeting, we asked our editorial team for their thoughts, and we received back enthusiastic lists -- which ultimately amounted to nearly our entire table of contents. In other words, we all still love it all.
Having never actually had a piece from Versal chosen for a Pushcart Prize, and not entirely sure what "will make it", our nomination procedure is based on the simple goal to choose a selection of work that we feel is representative of the Versal reach. Therefore, we feel, not only do these pieces each rock buckets individually, but taken together they more or less (and admittedly, probably less), span the range of the work you'll find in our pages.
Congratulations to our nominees:
The Miracle of Mrs. Evelyn Howard, Russell Helms
The Freight, Jane Lewty
Demonstrum, Nate Liederbach
Where the water comes from and gets together with its friends, Tony Mancus
Winter Song, Jill Osier
The Reindeer Daughter, Suzanne Warren
If the good folks at Pushcart choose any of these for publication in the 2012 anthology, we'll know in April.
November 09, 2011
When grousing begets grousing, you know you gotta do something.
The grumble-cloud has since mostly cleared, and I am feeling hope for humanity again. So rather than reply individually to all the grumblings, all three weeks worth of it, I'd like to put forward this as an open letter to my grumbling inbox.
November 03, 2011
Surreal, hyper-textual loveliness.
October 31, 2011
And being a novice, I worried; what can I expect from the Versal submission and reading process?
I waited–as one waits for a message to appear from the looking glass of a magic eight-ball–for the submission manager to show me a sign.
Finally, it did, and when it did, it was sudden. The submissions poured into my inbox in a flood. It all came as a bit of a surprise, in fact. I was excited, of course, and opened the first story sitting patiently at the top of the reading list, and dove in with considerable aplomb (and a large cup of coffee).
Maybe it was the cavalier attitude I was employing–I don’t know–but halfway through reading the first story, the gravity of the whole ordeal stuck me. Here it was in my document editor: a piece of work someone sweated over. A piece of work that is, in a way, pleading for acceptance. A story that, maybe, deserves the drop of an ax. Work, in any case, that deserves all of my attention.
I sat back from my computer and stopped reading. It wasn’t that I hadn’t considered these notions: but it was reading the work that made all these what-if scenarios into a paralyzing reality.
In my own way, I am a lot like the writers who submit to our journal. We, the writers, trust an editor with our work. We submit, and we hope for the best. We rewrite when the rejections become too monumental to ignore.
This feeling of camaraderie I felt towards my fellow writer seemed to be the origin of the first problem I faced as an editor; I simply felt guilty sitting in front of my computer judging someone else’s writing.
How can I choose what is acceptable work to pass on to my fellow editors? What makes me an expert? How can I be a judge when I so often receive rejection after rejection? What if I made a mistake? What if the stories I rejected were the right ones?
I read the 10 stories waiting in my inbox in one long sitting on the back porch of my friends house in Auburn NY.
Coffee was replaced by beer.
Lunch was replaced with dinner.
After the first reading, I was not able to reject a story. Not even one. I couldn’t convince myself that was the right thing to do.
In the beginning, I felt most comfortable reading; nothing more.
Editing for Versal isn’t about polishing a story. It is about curating.
I took the easy way out by rejecting the weakest stories up front–the ones needing hours of work, or when it was obvious that the author had not read the journal, and submitted work that was completely inappropriate. Soon I would have to make real decisions.
Yet, there are a lot of stories that seem, at first to fit with the journals aesthetic. The work seems challenging, uses language in a new way. But maybe it doesn’t fit. That is where choosing gets difficult: a gray area, where something in a story brings something new to the editors table and throws a monkey wrench into the works.
At some point in time, no matter what has happened with the journal historically, the pieces I will help choose are the future. There is a choice: a decision relying on taste.
The question, having confronted my initial reluctance to reject or accept, had evolved: What do I want to bring to the editors table?
I read the stories again. Twice. Three times.
Versal, being the journal that it is, receives some challenging work.
I understood the stories in a way. But not all of them.
And this was a bit of a struggle. I was frustrated that some of the stories seemed too difficult for me.
We have a second reader for this very reason, but due to reasons of pride, I hesitated sending the hardest stories on.
Robert, the head fiction editor for Versal, told me early on that, to be a good editor, I would have to to use my gut reaction, and embrace my lack of understanding sometimes. Send the story onto another editor if there were still lagging doubts–he said. In essence, swallow pride for the greater good of the journal.
Good work is in the details.
And many of the stories submitted to Versal are good.
When a final decision needs to be made, however, the piece with the most work put into it, where every piece falls into place, that’s the the story I’m going to choose.
In the first 20 odd submission I’ve read, I’ve found myself faltering over a twitchy piece of dialogue, a cliche or a poorly written sentence. That is when the decision is easy.
These little mistakes, more often than not, are enough to reject a piece.
A writer submitting to Versal, or any journal–and I include myself in this–needs to consider whether the story they’ve created has had enough work put into it, is a precious stone that should be put on display.
There are too many great writers who do put in the extra time and work. They proof read. They read the journal before submitting.
If we, as writers, are not doing this, are not taking this extra time when competing with the thousands of others out there submitting everyday, we’re competing with ourselves.
October 11, 2011
October 10, 2011
October 06, 2011
Unfortunately, like so many independent sellers, the St. Mark's Bookshop has seen a sharp decline in sales. Without a reduction in rent from the Cooper Union (the store's landlord), the St. Mark's Bookshop will have to close its doors.
A petition to the Cooper Union was created by the Cooper Square Committee to lower the rent. The required amount of signatures is close to being met. Please consider signing the petition here. And thanks in advance.
October 05, 2011
October 04, 2011
The above is what happens when Versal's art editors get together to discuss the future of art in Versal.
Table-top installation utilizing fruit, medicine, ceramic bowl and nuts compliments of art editor Reed van Brunschot.
September 25, 2011
i read an article once.
lower temperatures, people are easy going.
over 92, it's too hot to move.
but just 92, people get irritable."
--- Siouxsie and the Banshees
Occasionally, we get a query asking why our prose word limit is 3,000 words. If you're not doing flash stuff, say, less than 1,500 words, who writes that short? The average short-story length, apparently, is about seventeen pages - maybe 6,000 words or so. And most journals cap their prose limit at 7,500 words or so - say twenty-five pages. So what's with the 3,000?
A few overlapping thoughts:
1. Practicalities: on a staff of dedicated volunteers, with a process whereby we read each story in its entirety, and we promise a quick turnaround time, with a limited page count devoted to prose, it makes sense to publish shorter stories. If we published longer stories, we'd have the following problems:
3 times fewer stories published
2-3 times for story turnaround (or similar turnaround times, but less attention paid to each story)
So this kind of word count ensures that your story is getting a complete, full reading and that we'll get back to you quickly.
2. History of the short story: Has the average length of the short story changed over time? Of course. Why? Economic concerns, attention spans, notions of what does or does not constitute a short story (read Lydia Davis' Varieties of Disturbance lately?) all affect the general length of stories. Yes, it's much harder to get a 7,500 word story published now than it was ten years ago (though of course there were fewer journals then, too). Is 3,000 a kind of liminal space between flash fiction and "traditional" short story? Most definitely. That's where the fun is.
3. Possibility Space and Constraint: In that vein, I encourage people to think about how "traditional" notions of the short story must be deformed when writing shorter forms. It's very, very difficult to write a character and plot driven short story in 3,000 words - there's just not enough time (an example of a really nice "traditional" story in that length might be Stacey Swann's Crib Biting (V8)). So what can you do? What new forms, what new concerns might open up for you? That's what interests us.
If you don't feel like writing short, that's great - I myself am often writing 30-page stories. So while I'm a proponent of short work, I'm not fanatic about it. I am, however, riven by fascination, by mutation, by defacement - and that's one of the things that short forms allow us.
September 23, 2011
If you tried to reach us today. We're sorry. Our web hosts went bonkers on a server.
Anyway, we're back.
And now: I'm off to Malta. Me and the lady are celebrating our one-year. Robert, Sarah and the rest of the Versal gang are going to hold down the fort while we're away. If anything weird happens (again), blame them.
If you're trying to submit to Versal 10, just hang tight with us. I assume things will eventually work again. Or I'm going to go Pulp Fiction on GreenGeeks.
September 22, 2011
NEW! We are now working towards paying our contributors. Funds collected from contributor payment donations will be matched by Versal and distributed equally among Versal 10's contributors. Contributors will also receive one gratis copy and the option to order additional copies at a discount.and
All proceeds from the submission fee go towards production costs. The optional $1 added goes towards contributor payment, and will be matched dollar for dollar by Versal’s other fundraising activities.Maybe it won't be much, at first, but it will be a start towards rectifying at least one inequality in our literary economy, at least where Versal is concerned.
September 18, 2011
I don't get worked up about a lot of things in life. And with the exception of ensuring we have a kick-ass cover artist and that the pages of Versal are full of engaging, involved and thought-provoking artwork, I really don't get worked up about a lot of the goings-on in Versal's wide-reaching and ever-increasing journal-sphere. I stay in the background because so much of the conversation surrounding Versal is still specific to the literary world, and while I love you writerly types, my business is all up in the artsy fartsy world.
But this whole friggin' to-do over our new $2.00 submission fee has my proverbial panties in a bunch. Let me just put my thoughts at this point out there plain and simple: seriously? Seriously guys? You guys are gonna get all up and angry and bent out of shape and spend half your lives bitching and blogging and writing nasty emails back and forth about a measly $2? You're going to call it "repugnant" and be sure to let us know you're deleting us from your database and are "disappointed" in our decision to charge?
Ok, hold on. I'll back up and stroke you all a little bit by saying I do, on one level, get it. I "get" several "issues" y'all may be having with the submission fee problem. I get, for instance, that:
a.) As a writer you likely submit your work to a gabillion journals every year (maybe every month?) and if we were all asking for $2.00 every time you submit...well, multiply that $2.00 by a gabillion and you get a decent little bucket of cash going out the door every month. Ok, fair enough. I have responses to that, and the following b.)s, c.)s, and d.)s below, but I'm really not interested in jumping that full-on to this bandwagon. Besides, it's all been explained and justified and defended here on this blog and on other blogs already by not only my wife, Versal's chief Editor Megan M. Garr, but several other brilliant editors and writerly types on other blogs and places where writerly-types keep tabs on these things. I digress. On with the b.)s, c.)s and d.)s...
b.) It's not just the "measly" $2.00 we're talking about, but the principle behind it. Journals don't (usually) pay writers so why should you writers pay us? What gall! This journal is charging you to submit your work, which if accepted we'll only then use to our own advantage to get the journal out there in the world! We should be paying you, and a hell of a lot more than a measly $2.00!
c.) We journals should feel blessed and lucky to receive your work and discover your brilliance spread and bourne across the page (all cheekiness aside, this is often true -- feeling lucky as a reviewer to discover some kick-ass work come up through the submission system). How dare we ask you to pay for sharing your brilliance?
d.) You as writers dunno what we're gonna do with your $2.00, and plenty of journals you've entrusted your $2.00 to in the past have sunk it back into a luscious little pint of Guinness or the like instead of putting it towards actual printing costs.
Ok, so there are a few of the a.)s, b.)s, c.)s and d.)s that I confess I do understand, on some level, might justify some (ahem, some) of the heated arguments and strong language being used around this topic on the interwebs and in my wife's inbox.
But now I go back to the wtf, seriously? part of this conversation. And the part where I want to scream at all you whining writers, "It's two f**ing dollars!". Maybe it's because I'm coming from the perspective of an artist, where I have almost always had to pay submission fees for getting my work out there in the world, under the noses of fellow art-appreciators to let it be sniffed out and scrutinized for its level of worthiness. Maybe it's because when I first started sending work out 12 years ago, I not only had to send (real live paper) checks for submission fees that were at least $2.00, if not more like $5.00, on top of paying postage for mailing an 8.5 x 11" envelope (what was that back then? $0.80 or so?), but I also had to dump loads of my oh-so-limited cash supply into the film, development and printing of multiple slides of my work, and pay postage for a SASE to include with my mailing in the event that (gasp!) I'd be rejected and the reviewers were willing to return the slides I'd just dumped my loads of hard-earned cash into. That was then. Now it's easier of course with digital cameras and files of digital artwork and so on, and with most submission process being handled online, eliminating the postage fees. But I still (almost) always get the fees -- $2.00 to $5.00 or so.
Suffice to say there's always been a cost to send my work out there as an artist. So when the question of whether or not we were going to charge this, in my mind, measly little $2.00 submission fee as a way to, first and foremost, help keep Versal afloat, I thought "Duh! Why haven't we done that before???" And then when my brilliant editor-wife showed me all the whoo-haa going on in the literary blogosphere about this subject, I just frankly got really friggin' annoyed with all these whiny writers and their whiny writer Egos and their whiny writer principles and their kind of really outdated writer thoughts and views on the way this whole literary journal system thing "should" work and their kind of really outdated ideas that journals charging submission fees are either vanity journals or a straight-up scam. And I'm thinking, "Seriously? All this fuss about $2.00? Don't they get it? Don't they get all the work it takes to put these little books together? Don't they get the printing costs?" Oh, and don't even get me started on the fact that y'all used to have to pay for postage to send your work out, and $2.00 is not so different, really, from the $0.50 stamps you used to have to buy 5 or so years ago before online submissions dominated the "send your brilliance out there into the world for other people to review and fondle and decide to print up and spread all over the globe" space of the universe.
Ok. To your credit, writers, I'll say again: I get the why. I do. Especially in light of the whole BlazeVox whoo haa. Trust was broken. You felt used and you felt like someone pulled the wool over your eyes. Fair enough. Sound the alarms. Fight it out. Make yourselves and your opinions known and heard.
But, c'mon. Don't jump to the assumption that every literary journal is functioning the same way as the aforementioned (and might I add so overly referenced now to the point of being bullied in this conversation) BlazeVox or other less-than-transparent publications have behaved in the past.
We're trying our best over here in little A'dam and through the connective wires of the interwebs to be as transparent and honest with y'all as we possibly can about this new decision, this big change in Versal's life. We're about to be 10. This is a big year for us all.
I've known Megan for four years, and in those years I've watched her carry Versal around with her every minute of every day in her poet-activist-fighter's heart. I've watched her fight for Versal, love Versal, get angry about Versal, want to burn Versal down, want to build Versal up, want to keep Versal alive and thriving...but probably most importantly, I've watched her commit to the community and relationships that are Versal.
And that's I guess where I want to end. After all my venting to and about you whining writers, can I ask you to think seriously about your relationship with a literary journal? Think of it like a friend. Like someone you support, and who supports you back. Like someone who, when he or she invites you over for dinner, you'd bring a $7.00 bottle of wine for and/or a bouquet of flowers, because that fosters a system of mutual appreciation and support for the contributions you're both making in that relationship. While that subtle little monetary expectation is usually never spoken, it is in a way an agreement that could be similar to the literary journal's submission fee -- I as your friend who would like your company for dinner will pay $30.00 or so for dinner for both of us, for creating a space we can both enjoy and a space where we can both appreciate one another's talents, and you as a guest may also pay a small amount by bringing a bottle of wine or flowers to add to the atmosphere, and to contribute to our exchange as friends.
Versal can't keep going the way we were -- just barely funding our printing costs through journal sales, local workshops, and by dipping into the (not-so-deep) pockets of our (all strictly volunteer) editors to make sure the next one goes through...to make sure this thing we love and we know a lot of you out there in the world love too, can keep going. And we also can't keep going, and I'm speaking generally now about the journal to writer/creative relationship, with this expectation that the journal is there to serve you, the creative, and that we (the ones making you and a bunch of other creatives the $30.00 dinner, creating the nice atmosphere, and sending that atmosphere out there in the world for other people to enjoy) are just to continue functioning off of non-existing magic money trees.
You see, this thing between you -- you writer or you artist or you creative person functioning in some beautiful in-between space -- and Versal is a partnership. It's a relationship. We aren't here to screw you over. We aren't here to throw your hard-earned $2.00 to the Amsterdam (ahem) blow. We're here to take your creative contribution to our table seriously, to consider its placement in our little book, and to include you if it makes sense in this "dinner conversation" called Versal. We're asking for mutual respect. We're asking you to step beyond the reactionary space where you find a measly $2.00 submission fee "repugnant" and consider why your friend, Versal, who we hope you mutually respect, might be asking for you to bring along that bottle of wine. If the mutual respect is not there, well...I suppose you can go on then with your whining. I don't know that whining makes much sense at this dinner party.
So, that's my soap box. Partially through the lens of an artist who has always had to reach into her pockets to get her work out there. Partially as a person who just thinks it's stupid to be whining about $2.00 (even though now I'm also a person at least bitching about $2.00). Partially as the partner of the editor whose inbox is starting to fill up with whiny writer complaints. But mostly just as me, Shayna Schapp, Versal's art editor, who got worked up enough about some of y'alls response to a request for $2.00 to speak up.
September 14, 2011
What a resource, for writers and editors alike.
How so for editors? Because this provides an overview of what we're all saying. How we're talking to our communities. And I don't think any of us take the rejection letter lightly, but some ways we have languaged rejections may become outdated over time. Speaking as a writer who has been receiving rejection letters since 1997, I haven't noticed a significant change in the way they read. That's almost 15 years. Certainly something could change by now? With this resource, we can start to share what works and what doesn't, start to identify "best practice" letters, start a dialogue about how we communicate with each other.
But that's a big project. For now, I've just been using the resource to help us here at Versal to improve our practices. So in the run-up to Versal 10's reading period, a few of our editors and I read through all of them and made a list of the ones we like.
["Like" being a big bucket obviously. It might be that one letter has a respectful, kind closing note, but the rest of it is dismissive. Or another has a nice way of thanking the submitter. Often it just comes down to tone, I think. And of course personal preference. In general, our team seems drawn to those letters that assume that the submitter is a three-dimensional human being who knows what they're doing. Unfortunately I felt that a lot of the letters had a demeaning or patronizing undertone, harking back to a now (I would argue) outdated perception of the relationship between writer and editor. Anyway.]
So we rewrote our letters. I assume at some point these will get posted up on the Wiki (an old one is there now), but in the interest of all things holy here they are in all their glory.
We have three "template" letters and one blank one that we can write from scratch.
The first "tier" (to use the language of the wiki) letter is sent to folks whose work is read by 1-2 editors. This letter indicates that we feel the work is not yet strong enough for continued consideration. Clearly this judgment is subjective, but all such judgments are, and like all journals we must make a distinction between what work is really "ready" for serious consideration for our journal and what work has too many weaknesses.
The second and third tier letters are sent to folks whose work is read by 2-3 editors (at our "second read" level). The letters encourage the writer/artist to submit again next time because there's something about the work we are drawn to, or strengths in the writing or artistic style we see developing over more time. It can thus include a personal message to elaborate on our reading of it (essentially this could be considered the "third tier"). This work is discussed between editors at length, via our system and possibly over drinks in a bar in Amsterdam or elsewhere.
The fourth tier letter is sent to folks whose work made it to our editorial round table. This means that it was "escalated" up to everyone in a particular editorial team (poetry, prose or art), considered by each team member individually, then discussed during a team meeting. Sometimes it takes us two meetings to come to a decision about a piece. In any case, we read the piece or parts of it aloud (or, in the case of the art team, beam it onto a big or high-res screen), those who "sent it up" talk about their reading of the piece, and Robert, Shayna or I lead a discussion around it until we come to a decision.
I'm not the final round. I don't have veto power, nor does Robert or Shayna. But it's not consensus we aim for, either. And we don't see our editorial table as jury duty. Rather, we work to listen to each others' enthusiasm or frustrations, we seek to educate ourselves on a piece's inner workings, we try to impart whatever knowledge we have about the piece to our fellow editors. It's a giving, thoughtful, excited process.
And though most intently seen during our round tables, it is one that filters through every level of our reading.
We look forward to seeing your work.
September 12, 2011
Frankenstein - not just a story about a monster (really, every story is a story about monsters). If Don Quixote and Madame Bovary are in part about bad readers, Frankenstein is about a bad writer - one who can't accept that his (/her) hybrid birth has a life of its own. I love the double-frame, and how the juicy center of the novel is fully inhabited by the monster's tale.
Middlemarch - Eliot reads the brains, manners, and actions of her characters better (and more ironically) than anyone. The book is a compendium of people, artifacts, digressions that far exceed any one character's journey.
Moby Dick - talk about digression! As Ahab, I was "dismasted" after reading MD or, The Whale. A journey of language, a journey of a ship. Messing with the adventure novel, MD meanders through etymologies and symbologies of cetological goodness as much as it tells a tragedy of crew itself coffined by the whale. I will forever be haunted by Orson Welles as Father Mapple in the (not very good) movie version...
Ulysses - is not really hard to read. Of course, there are a few chapters that are difficult, but it's by no means impenetrable. It has so much sound, so much texture. Beautiful, beautiful. Really, if you're scared by the thought of reading it, don't be (yes, Finnegan's Wake is still super scary).
Lolita - my sin, my soul. A book that seduces you with artifice to out-and overlook Humbert's nymphette-mania. Everything is glorious - how HH's "scepter of my passion" later devolves into a "bitter tumor of my passion."
The Art Lover - Carole Maso's elegy is charming and haunting and ultimately a breathtaking reclamation of self in the face of grief. My favorite writer in a sort of post-Duras lineage, who seamlessly merges deep emotional longing and formal sophistication.
Infinite Jest - yes, it's gigantic. And yes, it's the hippest. But it's also the most wondrous synthesis of brilliance and humor and pathos I've read in forever. I'm super-looking forward to the Decembrists' video recreating the Eschaton scene.
and for you theory-heads out there, Blanchot, Blanchot, Blanchot.
Evangelist in readerosity,
September 10, 2011
Megan, Versal head honcho, smiled at me and said that 'we all did' at some point. She assured me that I would feel better once I got a chance to speak with Robert, the head fiction editor.
I had spoken to Robert once before through Skype about the editing process. During that chat we set a date to talk about 'literature' (quotes my own) some weeks ahead. That was meant to be about a month ago. The follow up meeting was postponed several times, Robert being in the midst of PhD exams and my needing to postpone our chat due to work overload.
Although I knew we'd get to it at some point, this did little to change the overwhelming feeling that I felt stuck in some strange limbo: I knew I was to be an editor, but I did not know what was expected of me or how I would accomplish the job. So, this anxiety led me to mention my potential fake-ness to Megan.
Robert got in touch on Monday, once his exams were complete. Since Robert did not know my experience or analytical 'skills' (again, those quotes are my own) he chose two pieces from Versal 9 to look over: A Year and Demonstrum.
I have to admit, I was a bit nervous.
We chatted a bit about my current travels in the states before moving on to business.
Robert asked several provacative and open ended questions to determine how I approached a piece. If you haven't read A Year or Demonstrum, the pieces do a good job of negating anything that is put forward. They leave the reader unhinged, caught in the grips of vertigo. Some times I felt I knew the answer, or a good enough interpretation and answered quickly. Sometimes I was left without an answer. Either way I felt excited, like I might be doing OK.
Then Robert asked me whether I would choose the two pieces for a second read. With confidence I said yes. He asked why. I said meekly, I don't know.
I was caught. There it was. A fake. A FAKE!
But Robert smiled (we had video chat on). He went on to explain that –sometimes–a certain amount of ambiguity exists in the choosing process. And that's OK. Sometimes the fiction we appreciate most around here at Versal are the ambiguous fictions, the ones that tranverse borders. The mysterious ones that use tropes as tools, that negate our notions of what fiction should be, that shoots all we know about writing out of a cannon into a million different pieces and puts it together with a TA-DA. The ones that you get a gut feeling about.
At the moment I'm reading a book called complications by Atul Gawande, given to me by a friend. You might know it: one of those New York Times Bestseller works that end up on the coffee table as a talking point. But this one is different. It is a short book about the trials and tribulations of being a modern surgean; essentially about the complications arising from being a human performing duties in a profession where robot like precision and miracles are expected.
A large portion of the book talks about learning on the job. That surgeons who go through years and years of training are eventually untethered and have to learn a great deal about cutting into live human beings. A scary thought.
Surgeons faking on the job. Learning as they go. Cutting up things that were never meant to be cut.
September 07, 2011
Though I'm no economist, the economics of this look pretty straightforward to me. The literary economy is saturated with presses and journals. The consumers in this economy are consuming what they reasonably can. But the revenue is spread so thin that, in general, no press or journal can survive without external cash injections from grants or credit cards.
In the wake of BlazeVOX-gate, lots is coming out about small press publishing. For the first day or so I think I really did read almost every comment, because I'm really interested in what good can come out of this discussion, for writers and publishers alike. I've admittedly fallen behind on my reading but have a bazillion tabs open in Firefox.
The following list is a generalized distillation of some of what's rising to the surface (at least of what I've seen so far):
- A general consensus that we (writers and publishers) value transparency where (at least) money is involved (and I think we may be starting to admit that money is always involved, even if it's in an "intangible" form like doing one's own book promotion)
- Professionalism is a pretty good default to stand by
- A general consensus that there are not enough consumers for the number of presses and journals (or that the level of consumption itself is too low)
- There are people who believe that the right of publication should be free, and people who believe in shared economic models (for lack of a better term)
- There are people who believe art and money cannot or should not coexist, and people who believe that they can (or at least have to)
- Many publishers are experimenting with new business models, or considering them
- We all at least seem to agree that we wish things were different, or easier, or both
In a nutshell, answering this question starts with me just being me. In other words, what do I do and what more can I do? (Now I feel like Johannes and the hippie.)
I asked myself what my consumption is in the literary economy (what I take out of it, so to speak. I'll leave out what I put in to the economy for now). In brief, it is, in no particular order:
- Supporting KickStarter campaigns of presses and journals I like
- Subscribing to my favorite literary mags
- Subscribing to one or two "seasons" of presses I love
- Buying a literary journal I haven't seen before but want to submit to
- Buying extra copies of journals in which my work is published
- Registering for AWP
- Buying about a suitcase full of small press books at AWP
- Purchasing gifts for friends and family from small presses and online bookstores like Powell's
- Writing checks for contest fees (which isn't easy, because I really do forget how to write a check)
So let's say all of us are doing roundabout the above. But that's clearly not enough to sustain all those presses and journals out there that we love. What else can we do?
When I saw that 1913 a journal of forms was actually open for submissions, I rushed over to its website. I freakin' love 1913. I saw it has a small reading fee. I didn't hesitate. If anything, I thought, hell, there's no chance my poetry is going to be accepted by 1913 but I'll throw this journal $3 so other people will be and can be and so that 1913 can be a journal.
And that's when it hit me.
I'M A SOCIALIST.
Blame it on Holland. Blame it on my hippie parents or my Montessori preschool. Blame it on my feminism or big Catholic family or the fact that I'm short. Or gay.
I believe in the basic tenants of socialism because I believe in sharing. And I'm starting to see the literary economy like I see my healthcare coverage in Holland:
I pay €135 a month for premium healthcare coverage. On top of that I pay (highish) taxes for healthcare based on my income each year, and a max €175 co-pay (for the whole year). I don't see additional bills once I've hit the yearly co-pay max. And here's the kickers: I have a chronic illness. I take medication daily and see doctors and have blood tests regularly. I also go to a physical therapist once a month for preventative care so that I don't injure myself climbing. Massages are covered. Dentist trips are covered. Hell, until recently, vitamins were covered. Oh yeah, EVERYONE IN HOLLAND IS COVERED.
It ain't perfect, but I don't pay out of pocket for an emergency ambulance ride either.
Imagine we all took a socialist attitude towards publishing, but one of course that didn't rely on "outside" government support. What if we said to ourselves, sure, I'll pay this $3 reading fee or this $20 contest fee or I'll share the costs of my book's publication so that not only I can continue to enjoy the privilege of print but others can as well.
I don't mean to demean the seriousness of our human right to healthcare, but it serves as a good example of where my head's going. It's going away from the economic model I was taught growing up (me! me! me!) to the one I've learned to love in my adopted home (all! all! all!). Johannes Goransson brought up the problematized "Author" in his post and I'd like to take that a step further and complicate the MY WORK IS GREAT AND YOU ARE PRIVILEGED IF YOU GET TO PUBLISH IT idea as being the major contribution any of us make to the world of literature.
Clearly I'm simplifying things. But I hope I'm at least making my point. If we all agree we're committed to seeing writing in print, esp. non-mainstream writing that is not part of the normal capitalist Amazon economy, then does it not follow that we all join in the economics to make that happen? And thus change our minds a bit on what that looks like? The world has changed drastically since I was taught to detest submission fees and vanity presses. Can we not change as well?
I also just want to point out one more thing. In my final post about the help Versal got from some €3000/day strategy consultants, I mentioned that one of the first ideas the consultants had was to charge a fee for submissions. Keep in mind these guys have no idea what's going on over there in the American literary world. They purposefully didn't come into the meeting with much background because we all wanted to see what would come out of the brainstorm if we had a blank page. And the idea came up almost immediately, because they felt that the fee would be a good "channel" to increase writers' participation in the literary economics.
How very socialist of them.
September 05, 2011
If you haven't been keeping up, start here, where writer Brett Ortler shares his recent but seemingly conditional acceptance from BlazeVOX. Then head over to HTMLGiant, which picked up the story rather quickly and where, true to form, the comments threads exploded. There are some heated responses out there, too. And last but not least, BlazeVOX's own Geoffrey Gatza responds here.
I'm following the fray closely because I am interested in what is between the lines of this discussion. There's actually quite a lot between the lines but I'm focusing on where it touches issues of business models and (business) practices, transparency, the changing relationships in the literary economy, what we "should" do, how we're/it's all changing, and the much-discussed "future of publishing".
These are each big discussions in and of themselves, which is probably in part why Mr. Ortler's blog catalyzed such a huge debate.
If you've been following our own blog over the last month, you'll know we're struggling with these very issues. Trying to find and implement a new business model for our journal has been an exciting but scary road, and I've tried to share as much about that road as I can, and will continue to do so. And foremost on my mind has been how to continue to be the honest, transparent and respectful journal that we started as and have grown more into. Which is why I'm thinking so much about best practices.
What are best practices? Wiki has a pretty good summary on them. In short, they are generally accepted things that work. For example, we could study what kinds of rejection letters are the "best" using certain criteria. Once you define what is "best", you can determine what practices will lead to it. So in the case of the rejection letter, we might define "best" as being respectful, non-demeaning, encouraging but honest. We could harness indicators like repeat submissions to determine how effective a letter is at its intended goal (some letters, e.g., may want to discourage a writer from sending work to the journal in the future, while others may want to encourage a writer to try again). The practice of writing such letters will have to do with things like the quality of the writing, the diction of its vocabulary, the signature (i.e. signed by an editor or by "The Editors"), the time lapse between submission and rejection, etc. Hard to imagine, maybe, but these things are actually measurable...
It wasn't too long ago that a situation in publishing led to the establishment of a best practice. Foetry's whistle blowing and the subsequent attention that bad contest practices got prompted CLMP to develop a contest code of ethics, which many contests now employ.
This latest eruption has underscored a lot of things, but for me as Versal's editor while Versal undergoes a change, I am interested in some of the best practices for small publishers that are coming to light. Like:
1. Grammatically correct and well-structured correspondence
2. Transparent business models
3. Transparent and upfront publishing terms
In a way these seem very obvious, and almost stupid to write down. But I think a letter that I write to someone who has entrusted me with her work should be well-written and not have spelling errors. I've spent nearly 10 years now with Versal thinking about these things, and assuming I was just a total nerd, and in an early instance having to argue with a fellow (now gone) Versal editor about why he should write emails that had complete sentences, and feeling then like I just was too uptight and generally not cool while his slightly manic emails were "cool" because they were "natural".
But this post isn't because I feel vindicated now by the crowd. It's because I want to continue (here and elsewhere) talking with writers and editors and everyone interested in what we can all do to make this better. And sometimes the best place to start is somewhere really simple. Like correctly spelled words in sentences.
Feel free to share what you think are "best practices" in small publishing down there in the comments. And also other thoughts. Already this big debate is starting to move "forward". Part of that can be about how in this major transitional time for publishers, we can be "best" at what we're doing.
August 23, 2011
Ideas we're considering
1. Expanding sales/reach into the broader arts community
Versal, as most of you know, is "more" than "just" a literary journal, and it's been that way since we started in 2002. It's a veritable object, an artistic archive, a coffee table book, if you will. In the last few years, our editorial reach into the arts community has expanded considerably. Translating that into copy sales is a good next step. For example, we recently joined the shelves at the Stedelijk Museum here in Amsterdam.
This may seem like a somewhat vague step, but with the consultants' help we could give form to a Versal that is not run like a non-profit, but like an enterprise. Sounds scary, I know. But I can see some advantages: a bank start-up loan, for example, might allow us to rent office space, get a few of us on a payroll, and help us inch towards economies of scale if we want. One potential element of professionalization would be if members of the editorial team become shareholders - essentially buying Versal and realizing later financial return from the investment. I could definitely see this model working for a brand new journal, where each editor joins in with an investment of funds, and once the journal reaches profitability the editors get "paid".
3. Leverage our contact moments
"Contact moments" is industry speak for the times when Versal comes in contact with a person. Each of these moments is a sales opportunity. For example, we could leverage pre-ordering during the submission process by asking folks if they would buy the issue, whether published or not. A non-binding agreement, of course, but an indication for us of how many buyers we may get from our submitters, and a nudge to those who send us work that supporting the journal may be a good thing.
4. Charge for submissions
Corollary to #3 is to charge a small fee for submissions. This idea came up pretty quickly in the brainstorm, as the consultants felt it was more than reasonable to ask a few bucks for the time we invest in work review. And a few bucks would be no more than the old SASE costs, especially the international ones. Since Versal's review process is editor-only (no interns, undergrads, or the like reviewing the "slush pile" - we read it all), and we give frequent personal feedback, there's added value to sending your work to Versal. Plus, if you're accepted, your work will never have looked so damn good. The consultants were convinced a submission fee could help. I explained that there's a lot of controversy about this, and industry-disparagement of the practice (e.g. Duotrope does not list journals that charge for submissions), but I am pretty sure as both an editor and a writer that this is where things are going. The recent discussion on HTML Giant seems to agree. And personally, if I really want to get my work into a journal and it charges me $3, I think that's $3 well spent.
5. Engage our network
In 10 years, we've crossed paths in one way or another with hundreds of people. Writers and artists who have sent us work, people who have bought copies, editors we have exchanged copies with ... the list goes on and on and on. I would recommend to any new literary journal that it starts an Excel spreadsheet or database of some kind to keep track of all of its contacts. These people can be tapped for later sales (that sounds bad, but you know what I mean), sent questionnaires to gain insights into the market, asked to reach out to their networks, etc. We have probably a dozen different spreadsheets by now, so our systems in that sense are a total mess, but we could better leverage our contacts to boost sales - I'm sure of this.
6. Editors' better engage their networks
Here's an example. The strategy consultants are one of my clients (I am a freelance editor, writer and translator, working with Dutch companies to improve their English texts), and are 70-strong at their Amsterdam office. So I pitched Versal 9 to their account manager as the annual Christmas gift. We'll see if he bites. Another idea: those editors who teach in schools could teach Versal 9 - and the school pays for students' copies. It's not just about sending an email to our families, it's about tapping our professional networks too.
I hope this has been helpful, not only to other editors struggling with sustainable business models for their endeavors, but to writers out there who want more than a glimpse behind the curtain of the journal world. Though this post concludes my series on the advice we got from the strategy consultants, I will no doubt continue to share insights that we've had under their guidance, our thoughts on some of the potential directions we can go (like submission fees), and maybe a few pie charts.
August 22, 2011
The First in My Series of Behind the Scenes Action
A file transfer request landed in my fancy Words In Here email account.
It was from head editor Megan Garr, who found time between climbing and fighting off testosterone-filled idiots to send me something special:
A zip file, filled to the brim with videos explaining our purpose built submission manager.
I was receiving training materials because soon, strikingly soon, our submission manager opens.
Begin the flood.
Worry set in.
Those first couple weeks.
Reading day-in and day-out.
Raccoon circles under the eyes.
Coffee and coffee.
But after watching the videos and familiarizing myself with the submission manager, the stress was quashed.
Our editorial team–although lacking interns–is deep enough to make the whole process workable.
How It's Done
The head editor for the team (poetry, or in my case fiction), picks out a random ten stories which she/he then sends to an editor.
Throughout the reading process each editor has a partner.
If at any point I or my partner are overwhelmed by too much backlog, or if a story is good but not our cup of tea, we can pass on. This prevents rejection due to matters of individual taste or over saturation.
If there is a story that impresses us we pass it on to a second reader with our personal notes on the piece attached. Why is this story good? How does it fit into the Versal canon?
The second editor agree, or disagrees. We chat about it. The story is either rejected or moved on to the next stage.
If the story passes the second reading the entire editorial team for that genre (poetry or fiction) reads the piece. If everyone likes it, the whole editorial team (poetry and fiction) discusses what to do next. Good enough for the magazine? Or a very personal rejection letter?
So very democratic.
I don't think we're reinventing the wheel here, but there's no need to. A well organized reading process not only keeps stress to a minimum, it also ensures the highest quality out of the journal.
September 15th, 2011. Here it comes.
August 19, 2011
I've been bouldering for four and a half years now. I usually train three times a week at my local climbing gym, and the muscle strength in my arms grew so fast that in the first few years I was frequently grounded with weird finger injuries. But even then, after only two years, I was nudging a 7a in the famed Fontainebleau and playing with the burley, lengthy 6cs at the gym. And I can hold on to small edges in a way that'll make you cringe. When I'm there, I don't think about poetry or Versal or the lit world. Or anything else, really, besides being there. I don't compete, and don't want to, but bouldering is the only sport I've ever loved, I'm good at it but not an elite by far, and it confronts me with a range of challenges and fears, from the physical to the intellectual to the spiritual/emotional.
And that brings us to "That boulder's so easy even a girl could do it".
Last night during training, I was warming up on a fingery 6b. Rumor has it I'm one of the only ones in the gym to have topped it out because the last hold is such a small pinch that most guys can't hold on long enough. But it's shaped perfectly for my small hand, plus there's that finger strength.
My buddy Casper was showing some newer climbers a 6a nearby. I think these kids are exchange students; two of them speak Russian and two of them German, but they speak a broken English between them. They struggled on the boulder but one of them, the louder of the bunch, finally did it. When he jumped off, he said, "That boulder's so easy even a girl could do it."
Casper shot a look at me and then blew some air out of his nose. "Don't ever say that again," he said. Casper knew I'd attack the dude.
I was close enough to have heard but not close enough to have been a natural part of the conversation, but f*** that. I shouted across the bouldering cave, "What did you just say?"
The kid looked at me blankly. "What did you just say?" I repeated. He stammered. I didn't let up. "I can climb better than you any day," I said.
"I'm sure you can," he replied, but unconvinced.
"Yes," I said flatly. "I can."
One of his friends looked at me sympathetically. "He didn't mean it like that."
"That's bullshit," I replied.
The little troupe of boys got quiet. Casper and I started talking about a 7a we're both attempting, and the boys moved on to another part of the cave.
Boulders at my gym are burley and reachy, which means they're mostly all built by tall Dutch guys who like shouldery moves that will show off their muscles. The technical, subtle boulders that I love are rare there, and I plateaued at the 6b level for quite some time thanks to a combination of those reachy boulders and my own attitude that the boulders are "too reachy" and stupid anyway. But I finally read the famed 9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes by Dave MacLeod, and I've been working the last two months to overcome my attitude problem. Just because guys dominate our gym doesn't mean I can't climb successfully there. Within a week or two I had ascended my first plastic 6c, and several more since.
Guys at my gym either ignore the girls who boulder, or spend a lot of time giving them advice. This advice usually comes in the form of a laugh when you fall off, and then them going to the wall and showing you the move. Keep in mind that a move between holds can be very different for a tall person. I'm 5'4", so my methods are often more technical and creative, whereas a tall guy can usually just reach up and go. Older men who are not very good climbers themselves seem to approach me sorrowfully when I'm working on a harder boulder, and they offer all kinds of "tips" with a patronizing smile. This has become more frequent since my hair has grown out (when I started climbing, I was Sinead O'Conner shaved). I've watched the exchange between guys there, and have noticed that the better guy climbers never seem to attract advice. People just leave them be.
Last night, I was the only girl bouldering. Well, my friend Fleur was there, but she's 8.5 months pregnant so she was staying on the flat walls and taking frequent breaks. I mean, 8.5 months pregnant and she's been at the gym every week at least once. That's hardcore. I'm not sure I would do it.
About a half hour after my exchange with the Russian kid, he came up to me. I thought he might try to apologize. Instead he said, "If you're so good, why don't you show me how to do this." He'd been working on a 6a in a roof.
"I'm not going to show you a thing," I said. "If you're so good, why don't you teach yourself."
"I'm not so good."
"No, you're not." Which was unfair of me to say, I realize, however true.
"But you're good."
"Yes, I am."
"So show me."
"I'm not going to show you anything." I was calm but stern. "Don't talk to me again, dude. I don't want to have anything to do with you."
His request was part-apology, part-challenge, and I was not going to yield. He left me alone the rest of the night, as did his friends, but I noticed they kept an eye on me. Out of suspicion or anger, I'm not sure. I don't really care. What I care about is that I'm confronted more often than I'd like in middle-class Europe with misogyny and unfounded male-domination, be in at climbing gym or in the poetry world.
I had planned to write about my experiences at the Prague Microfestival but never did. The organizers of the event are good people, even if they surround themselves and the festival with men who walk around acting entitled and superior. Several of the readings there were public displays of male masturbatory pride. One poet who will remain unnamed read an excerpt from some ridiculously long poem that was designed, we concluded later, just to piss off his audience. He read slowly and with a smirk on his face for 45 minutes, 2x longer than most other readers. The Amsterdam contingent was me and three other women, and luckily a few other women did sprinkle the program. But the contrast was stark and the masculinity of the event pervasive. We even made up a rap one night, after a few of those big Czech beers, called "Penis on the Table, Penis in Prague" – taken from an image Shayna gets whenever testosterone fills the room. As I described in my piece in A Megaphone, the Microfest is like most other events in the international community here on the continent -- male-dominated, and unapologetic about or purposefully unaware of it.
Last night's confrontation reminded me of a few things. One, that I had never written about my experience in Prague, out of fear that I would upset its organizers. Two, that speaking up isn't hard. Three, of that fantastic scene in Antonia's Line when the mother aims a shotgun at the man who raped her daughter. Four, that my feminism runs through me through-and-through, and is a part of every step I take in this world.