February 1, 2011KR BlogNewsletter

Why We Chose It

Why We Chose ItBy James Flaherty.

For those just tuning in, Why We Chose It responds to questions KR editors often receive. What kind of writing are we looking for? How do we know when a piece is right for us? (You can read the previous entries in this series here and here).

James FlahertyAnyone who’s spent significant time and energy submitting work for publication will shudder at the phrase “right for us.” As in, “we appreciate the opportunity to read your work, but it’s just not right for us.” The phrase is misleading, suggesting editors have “right” standards, an answer key for literary excellence. Perhaps some do, but in all likelihood editors mean the phrase merely as a gesture toward gut-feelings and reactions that are microscopic and accretive and very hard to talk about. If I can say anything about why KR chooses its pieces, it’s this: when a piece works, it just works. But for a prospective author this is hardly helpful.

For a better grasp on this editorial business, let’s consider Alex Epstein’s Lunar Savings Time, selections of which are currently featured in KROnline (incidentally, you can also hear a reading from the translator, Becka Mara McKay, at AWP).

Here’s a selected story, quoted in full:

On the Power of Russian Literature
My great-grandmother once shut a book by Tolstoy so hard that a spark came from its pages, and the spark climbed up the curtains, and ignited a fire, and our summer house went up in flames. I did not inherit this talent of my great-grandmother’s, but once I did try to write a story in which everything took place in reverse: the summer house goes up in flames, the curtain burns, a spark catches in the pages of Anna Karenina, and so on: my great-grandmother closed the book so hard that the fire was extinguished.

And another:

On How the iPad Saved the Short Story
The truth of the matter is that the iPad did not save the short story, and in any case this was not the reason that one man, fed up with his life, jumped from the window of his apartment on a high enough floor. And then, in the middle of the journey to the sidewalk, he suddenly discovered he could actually fly. He began to hover above the city streets, and flew up and down and forgot that he had just jumped from the window to die, and even cautiously approached the utility lines (without which the world is demilitarized from sadness). After a few minutes, when he turned in the general direction of his window, he could no longer fly. He started to fall, managed only to think he should ascend one last time, but it was no use, he spun through the air, plummeting and crashing on the road just a few minutes’ walk from his home. What a brief and bizarre kind of grace this was. But grace nonetheless.

Tyler Meier has a term for writing like this: “lily pads.” That is, blooms of detail, snatches that speak volumes. Lily pads are like those moments during a reading that provoke collective vowel sounds from the audience.

But of course, these stories are much more than that. They have an odd sort of integrity, an intention to them that’s hard to put your finger on, to explain how it works or why. Each story works like a kind of Merry-Go-Round, accelerating, looping, and terminating at the point of beginning. You go for a ride, and if it sounds like I’m describing an amusement park, this is intentional. These stories are entertaining.

Faced with six thousand submissions annually, we like it when material entertains us. As do readers. A reader can, at any moment, stop reading, and a reader is likely to do so in favor of activities that will entertain better than literary poetry and prose. The ambition of literary writing (of which KR is a purveyor) is to illuminate, debunk, mystify, transgress, inform, and challenge. To be more than entertainment, in other words. But not to be above entertaining. The best writing will keep you enthralled and keep you thoughtful at the same time. It will put the above virtues in collaboration, a collaboration that is, at best, invisible and unnoticeable–entertaining by virtue of insight and provoking insight by virtue of entertainment.

In short, treat your readers well.