Life at Fifty: A Review of the Legendary Vestal Review, Issue 49 (online)
by Anne Elizabeth Weisgerber
With Vestal Review on the verge of its 50th publication, I decided to take a peak inside its most recent online Issue (49), to see how the ‘oldest journal dedicated to Flash Fiction’ is doing these days. VR pays its authors (between 3- and 10-cents per word depending on length), and limits stories to 500 words. It was founded in 2000 by co-editors Susan O’Neill and Mark Budman.
VR Issue 49 has seven stories, with varying tones, and styles, their common theme being vibrant, if painful, relationships. This review looks at both VR’s website and its contents.
Before looking inside the issue, I’d like to pause and comment on the website: Issue 50 is an opportune milestone for VR to juice up its online look and revisit how it packages digital editions. In a nutshell: I do like the spare aesthetic of the VR site, its use of negative space, but I long for a table of contents and compelling visuals when reading online.
I admire VR’s logo, its leaning R reminiscent of Gary Indiana’s iconic “Love” artwork. Whether viewed on a laptop or handheld, however, VR’s undersized flag and logo look like clip art. This is not becoming for a beloved grand-dame of flash. The journal name and powerful tagline need to size up and take charge of the landing page.
My other top-line observation for the webpage is that VR do more to encourage original art submissions for its online flagship, rather than using illustrations as filler. For example the introductory commentary, on the current US election, abuts an old tintype from the Eastman Collection. There is then a photo of sheep, credited to Budman, alongside a call for voters to act. Although these two photos link clearly to Budman’s editorial statement, the introduction does not link directly to the issue’s contents. The intro led me to believe that either 1. the issue would also be tongue-in-cheek and mildly satirical, or 2. the issue would be about US politics or political discourse. Neither assumption proved correct.
Scrolling down, large type indicates where Issue 49 begins. It starts with an interesting ink drawing credited to Dmitry Borshch, Daughters of the Dust (2010), which shifts, tonally, from the introduction. I think this visual element, derivative of Victorian notions of personal publicity, was worth featuring on its own as a design element, as the cover of a magazine would. It’s also an awesome doorway into the first story in the collection. But that transition to fiction gets interrupted, as this beautiful standalone art plays sidekick to a call for donations and copyright information. Perhaps those elements are more practically placed at the bottom of a table of contents, or at the bottom of the webpage, separate from the cover art rather than alongside it?
I do expect a table of contents in magazines, and this issue does not have one. TOCs allow one to scan quickly for names of friends, names of note, and new names. (Even better are tables of contents that allow one to jump to stories and author bios by clicking a hyperlink.) VR‘s site and its archives are searchable, but that only helps one who knows which author name or title is archived. Adding a TOC will not only enhance the reader experience, but also streamline author ability to link to and share VR and their individual stories via social media and through personal blogs.
The Main Course: Flash Fiction
Now for the content. It’s no mystery that VR has staying power. The editors have selected and presented seven stories in Issue 49, each showing creative use of literary devices.
It kicks off with overt allusion in “Dorian Gray,” wherein Hugh Behm-Steinberg has Wilde’s famous character self-obsesses on a selfie in Photoshop until his overly manipulated creation takes pity and comes to the rescue. Another celebrated figure emerges from the ecclesiastical diction of Jan Elman-Stout’s story, “A Spilled Chalice, an Unfastened Cincture, a Broken Cross,” wherein a doomed protagonist confuses religious and sexual rapture.
Then the narrative transitions to the cryptic allegory of Eric G. Wilson’s “What They Are Doing.” In this flash, details set a menacing tone. The setting is rife with “broken windows” and “stumps,” “empty rooms” and “barbed wire,” and the unseen and unnamed “others” who wall in the protagonist.
Wall imagery remains in the next story, “Door Frames” by Julian Edney. His protagonist is a mild-mannered, meek lover who wants out of a controlling relationship, and so he retreats to an abandoned house in the desert. His ex finds him, however. She has incredibly walked “across the desert from Bakersfield,” arriving with “swagger,” saying “I am angry,” and beginning to rearrange things. The thematic sentence belongs to the narrator, however, before he gets out: “All changes are like stepping stones and you should leave each one quickly.”
The next tale, “Trace” by L.N. Holmes, provides a nice counterpart to the Edney story, in that Edney’s protagonist is the one who walked away, but in “Trace” it is the abandoned one who provides insight. Holmes uses a realist, first-person voice, its journalistic specificity (at one point remarking of the collarbone, “It only takes seven pounds of pressure to break”) brings a sense of urgency. It’s the tale of a laissez-faire relationship between two lovers who have an impasse and drift apart. The protagonist might desire him, but acknowledges “my gravitational pull is weak.”
This is followed by a prose-poem, Thomas Sanfilip’s “The Short Story of Luis.” It’s a boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-all story. A debilitated deep-sea conch diver, with a “pock-marked face” desires a girl, a fortune-teller, whose “eyes, mouth, figure” are lovely to him. He loses his life by staying too long underwater, gathering shells. There is interesting work being done with tight diction here: blood and pellets of iron, spiral-shaped quarry, clusters, and the filling of baskets. Genetics, fate, and folklore seem here intertwined.
The issue ends with a second-person tale: Michaela Elias’s “The Bottom of Your Shoe.” Like Wilson’s “What They Are Doing,” this one eddies in abstraction. It seems a metaphor for an unhealthy relationship, where one might debase oneself and sacrifice all “until there was nothing left… anywhere” and still be unappreciated. I’m not a big fan of second-person narrative, for the most part, but I did like that this forlorn girl found herself at home in a crack shaped like “an elongated diamond.” Sounds like one of those endless engagements we all know!
Summing it Up
My takeaway impression of VR is that it remains a viable and exciting place for flash fiction writers. The editors are clearly looking for variety and craft, and have a wide and welcoming reach for this issue.
The fiftieth anniversary issue is accepting submissions through October 3, and stories accepted to VR‘s milestone publication will receive an honorarium of $50 plus one printed copy. Although VR instituted a $3 submission charge for this call, it is guaranteeing a 3-week turnaround. VR will revert to its customary no fee-submissions for issue 51.
I rate the contents of Vestal Review Issue 49 4 out of 4 stars; the website gets 2.5/4, and should consider new layout and design options, and add a table of contents to each issue.