Ah, the slush pile. That big dreaded stack of manuscripts given to the lowest person on the totem pole to read and judge. Although I assume I’m dating myself here, as I would think that slush is now an in-box full of manuscripts rather than actual paper to be piled in the corner of the office.
The slush pile is that unglamorous stack into which unsolicited manuscripts go. Every literary journal has a slush pile. Some publishing companies do, but mostly indie ones, as the bigger companies won’t accept unsolicited manuscripts anymore; they must be submitted by an agent, who acts as a gatekeeper, which is why those who want to publish with one of the Big 6 (or is it Big 5 now?) needs an agent.
For many years I was a slush-pile reader. One of my first freelance jobs was for a friend who worked at Cosmo, back when they published fiction. She’d hand me a big pile of short stories. I was paid 50 cents a story, and I didn’t have to finish reading them if I didn’t like them. As an aspiring writer, I always tried to finish them, even when it was painful.
Later, I took a job as an editorial assistant at a book-packaging company. A book packager does everything a publisher does except actually print and distribute the books. I enjoyed the job (until the company went bankrupt–no reflection on my slush-pile abilities), and I took my role as reader seriously. However, it wasn’t my only job. In fact, it was considered the least important part of my job. After doing the photo research, brainstorming and writing book proposals, checking on royalties, helping with layout, and, yes, covering the phones for the receptionist on her lunch break, I was to read slush. This time I didn’t read all the way through, as I didn’t have time to read book-length manuscripts unless they had promise. The publisher of the company told me to create a form letter and just send it out. But I didn’t have the heart. So I carefully crafted personal rejection letters. I gave suggestions that would improve a book. Pointed out weaknesses. Said what I thought worked. Most of the books were quite bad–a one-day trip through the slush pile garnered at least five romances with a mousy, unassuming girl who really was beautiful but didn’t know it; twelve romances where the bored wife/girlfriend realizes she really had everything she wanted right in front of her the whole time; and ten Vietnam stories written by veterans who could tell the perfect story because they had lived it–but I hated saying “no,” even when the slush pile reached from the floor of my office to above the top of my head (granted, I’m not very tall, but still).
Valuable lesson: personal rejections are so rare that folks will latch on and continue the dialogue, wanting to resend the manuscript, asking for more advice, wondering if you’d care to share more opinions. By my third month at the company, I had created a form letter. A book had to completely break the mold to earn a personalized rejection. And keep in mind, this was in the pre-e-mail days, when manuscripts had to be mailed, which means (I think) people were much more careful about sending. Now in a blink of an eye folks can finish a manuscript and e-mail it off, without all the laboring and angsting. When you had to pay $10 to photocopy it, $5 to mail it, $5 for the self-addressed stamped envelope, you were much pickier about to whom you sent what. I even had this (terrible) idea for a novel, where a murder is committed and described in detail through submissions to a slush pile. The editorial assistant reading the pieces would write back with suggestions, which the murder would act upon in real life. The assistant realizes she was controlling the murderer and begins dictating who is killed in, working her way up to people in her own life. It was a long and convoluted idea, and I never wrote it because, well, I don’t write mysteries.
My next slush pile experience was in my M.F.A. years, when I read slush for the Seattle Review. That was the most democratic of all the processes, in which each student was to read the entire story, give a written opinion, and mark, “publish,” “don’t publish,” or “maybe.” All pieces went to a second reader and if they disagreed, the editor-in-chief gave the final opinion. Fiction students read fiction and poets read poetry (creative nonfiction wasn’t a major then so those pieces went straight to an editor). I’d pick up stacks of short stories, and read them, always giving careful thought to what worked and why.
My final experience was when I worked on a ‘zine (remember the days when ‘zines were big?). A feminist ‘zine in Seattle in the mid-90s. The submissions we received aren’t really worth discussing. They were all read, but let me repeat: Seattle. 1990s. Feminist ‘zine. ‘Nuff said.
This is all leading me to David Cameron’s article in The Review Review, “The New Yorker Rejects Itself: A Quasi-Scientific Analysis of Slush Piles.” As an experiment, Cameron took a couple of stories that had been published in The New Yorker and submitted them to literary journals. The New Yorker is the epitome of the short fiction publishing world. It is the apex, the zenith, the thing to which we writers aspire. They publish the best of the best, no? You can guess where this experiment took him. Without giving too much away, Cameron writes:
Dear reader, every single one of these journals rejected my poor New Yorker story with the same boilerplate “good luck placing your work elsewhere” auto-text that has put the lid on my own sorry submissions. Not a single personal pleasantry.
Is this a depressing commentary on the state of literary journals and their overwhelmed readers? If a New Yorker story doesn’t stand a chance in The New Yorker, where do we mere mortals stand? On the other hand, it gives me hope in that each journal has its own distinct style and perhaps New Yorker stories simply don’t match their tone. Every short creative piece I’ve ever had published has been pulled from a slush pile.
What’s the lesson here? I suppose it’s target your submissions well. Hope that the person reading has had his or her coffee. And when you get a rejection, don’t take it personally; just turn around and submit again. Writing: It’s a cruel business.