June 02, 2009

Glimpsing Versal's aesthetics...

As an editor (and as a writer who feels that the task of unencoding the gestalt of a journal is frustratingly mystifying), my hope is that writers interested in Versal feel that they can understand a bit of our process (I’ll write more on this in a separate post) and a bit of where we’re coming from aesthetically. It’s a difficult world, given how many pieces we receive compared to how many we publish (fiction acceptance rates will clock in about 2 percent this year), but at the least we want our submitters and readers to know that for us, this is a labor of love, and it’s of supreme importance to us to communicate well with you.

In this vein, I wanted to talk a little bit about some questions you asked at the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference in Chicago this year:

The most frequently asked question was: what's the relationship between Salt Lake City and Amsterdam? I told people they were sister cities, but most are too smart to fall for that. Really, Salt Lake City was an innocent error made by the nice people who created the Versal Banner.

The next question: what kinds of work do you take?

At a simple level, the answer was: the good kind. And this is true. On both fiction and poetry teams, our readers come from quite varied aesthetic positions - we're not one of those journals that only accepts allegories featuring seven-legged spiders. And we tend to push each other to work carefully with forms or structures we find uncomfortable, so that we expand our understanding of literature - if the mind is fairly broad in the ways it understands the universe, why should literature be constrained by a stifling set of rules? Trust me, when I meet you, I'm not wondering how long it will take until you transition from a flat into a round character.

However, speaking only from a fiction (not fictional) perspective, I thought we could refine our interests in a way that provided insight into our (thought, submission) processes...

• The 3,000 word limit we place on our fiction submissions is not simply a publishing and economic constraint - it is a challenge to writers to try to (re)imagine how story length can be a breeding ground for new formal structures. It is incredibly difficult to follow the "rules" of a more traditional, longer story (round characters, Freytag's Triangle) in a shorter story. True, the preferred structures within the vague category "flash fiction" are starting to codify, but there is still an incredible range of play in shorter forms. I am fascinated by what people can do in the 1,500 to 3,000 word range, and we love good work that explores the possibility in these spaces.
• Similarly, we like people who pay attention to language. Story, even if it's abstract, is a must, but we tend to really be drawn to stories in which language isn't a neutral medium. When I say attention to language, I don't mean that the author uses lyrical language, nor do I mean that the author can't use standard syntax or diction. It doesn't have to be a self-aware use of language. It simply means that it is clear the author is considering each word, even if that word is "the."
• Cute and surreal is great, but we like it when there's dark water lurking beneath the surreal. I love Aimee Bender, but too many people are trying to write like her without considering what makes the best of her stories great. At their best, her stories have a surface-level twist that engages our imaginative senses, but this twist does not overwhelm the fact that the stories have real pathos - a sense of longing, loneliness, of communion. At their worst, or if the reader isn't getting her vibe, the stories feel like one-trick ponies, but at their best they complicate the mystery of our lives. So it's awesome that the bats in your story don't suck blood but instead remove earwax - but push that just a little further.
• We don’t have any aesthetic no-nos – we accept both highly realist and highly abstract stories, the linear and the fragmented. Some stories have traditional conflict, while others are closer to performative rants. Everything’s fair game.

• I know this isn't worth saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: it happens all the time that people don't follow the rules. Sadly, submissions that don't follow instructions get a little black mark. If you still have questions after reading our guidelines, please feel free to ask - we love talking to you.
• Some of the best literature is full of sex and drugs, but imagine, especially given our Amsterdam connection, how many stories we get that focus on sex and drugs. Sex in literature is not intrinsically racy or experimental - people have been doing it in all sorts of ways for thousands of years. Have you read Dante lately? And for most of us, the world is always already strange. So make the stone stony, but make it something un-stony as well.

Feel free to ask questions, rant, applaud, grouse (in a compassionate and detailed way). I’ll try to be as open and candid as possible. It's even possible that other editors will chime in with different stories...


Fiction Editor

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