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February 11th, 2012 / 2:00 pm
Literary Magazine Club

{LMC}: Comfort in the Labyrinth

I was not terribly familiar with the literary magazine scene when I first read Versal magazine, so I have to admit I was somewhat astonished with its contents. Just beyond the beautifully crafted cover the labyrinths of Borges used the dead ends of Lynch, and the absurdity and refined metafiction of Flann O’Brien morphed and distorted the images on display. It was obvious that Versal had a deep respect for the innovators of the fiction craft. However, the modernity of the stories, their own innovation, showed that they didn’t define the magazine.

I knew I wanted to work with Versal after finishing the first couple of stories inside, and with that desire I had a lot of expectations of what was necessary for my participation.

My relationship with Versal started when I moved from London to Amsterdam. Eager to get involved with the local literary scene in any way possible, I joined a workshop run by the Versal editors. There I met Megan Garr, founder of the magazine. We found we had a lot in common. After several months of drinks, meeting a social events and climbing together (Megan is an excellent boulderer) I asked if I could join the editorial team. She kindly said yes.

This kind of reminiscence may seem unnecessary but it is an example of how Versal does business. While some journals seem to revel in their own self-imposed exclusivity, Versal does not. Megan, and the rest of the team, has manufactured many ways to engage the greater literary community over the years and have strived to keep the inner workings of the magazine transparent–hence this essay and my participation as an editor.

If you ever get the pleasure meeting Megan, you will understand how she explodes the mystical and puffed-up image of the head editor as some sort of explosive ego. She is not the singular arbitrator of what goes into a journal and doesn’t desire to be. This attitude has informed the selection entire process, as I’ll explain.

A misconception I had of the editorial process when I joined the team was that all literary magazines used some sort of hierarchy to maintain a unified vision. I surmised that to work for Versal would mean I was required to defer opinions to the head fiction editor, Robert Glick. In this way, I would act as a tool for getting through the slush pile, but have little say in the final selection. Surely there are many journals out there that function in this way.

In actuality, I and everyone else on the team have equal responsibility in cultivating the fiction selections.

I remember I was very nervous joining the team. Versal 9 was an artifact, a piece of history that was as beautiful as it was mysterious. Behind issue 9 was a history, the story of all the previous issues in one item.

 

Behind this mystery is the transparency Versal strives for. It works like this:

 

  • Pieces are entered into our special submissions manager.
  • Robert Glick sends out bunches of ten to each of the assistant fiction editors.
  • Our role is to read every piece thoroughly.
  • If we like the piece we can escalate the story to the whole team.
  • If we aren’t sure about a piece, or question whether our disliking it is a matter of personal taste, we can send the piece to another editor for a second opinion. Unfamiliarity with the style or tone of a work is not grounds for rejection. Neither is personal taste. This is why we have a second reader; to make up for any shortcomings we have in understanding a fiction.
  • Once enough pieces are escalated a roundtable meeting is schedule over Skype. We discuss the work and help decide whether or not to accept it for publication.

 

The roundtable meeting was a surprising element of the Versal process for me. It acts as a sounding board for our opinions, as well as a place to listen to judgments. Yes, Robert is there listening as well, and ensures we stay on task. However, contrary to how I believed a literary journal works, I‘ve never heard Robert say we have to have a certain piece in the journal, or that his opinion was more important than ours. The roundtable is about coming together as a group to find what we like about a piece, or to find out what we could like if only we could be convinced. Selection is about excitement and enthusiasm. If there are enough of those two elements the selection is made.

Finding the words to describe how we come to the final decisions is something I know Megan and Robert have struggled with in the past. Here’s my take:

Selection isn’t about consensus, because that would insinuate that everyone agrees with every story that appears in the journal. This is not the case. I know I’ve given into pieces I didn’t want, and let go of pieces I truly believed in.

Democracy could work, but perhaps doesn’t. Do we mean a Greek style democracy? Somehow we come together and select with active enthusiasm, agreement and capitulation. It’s a melting pot of opinions made into something solid. Sometime there isn’t any votes cast.

Maybe a single word can’t define what we are trying to do.

Whatever the word or phrase might be, we are very concerned with why we make the decisions we do. Sometimes the reasons we like/dislike a story are obvious and at other times it is just a feeling we can’t define.

I mentioned in another blog post that to work as an editor for Versal I was required to give up my ego. Alongside that idea of tossing away and returning to Borges, there is something of the labyrinth in the editing process. Every story is like every story because every story is every story (as Borges might say). Almost everything that enters the submission system has something to love and something to loathe. Sometimes, finding out what we loathe helps us grow as writers and editors. The stories we really love also define the stories we hate. Therein these stories are all connected and deserve attention. This I’ve learned.

I’ve learned that I need to be careful, take off the garbs of arrogance and accept that I might not like every story and that not liking something doesn’t exactly mean I am right or wrong. Sometimes things aren’t wrong, they’re just different. Understanding that deferring to the group is also a way of understanding is integral to the Versal process.

Maybe that is why Versal has the feel it does? By using the minds of several editors instead of one we are able to enter several realms of interpretation instead of accepting the totalitarian vision of one senior editor. That keeps the journal fresh.

During the last roundtable Robert said something I won’t forget; that he feels implicit trust for the editors on the team. I remember wondering: how else could we ever make a journal like Versal?