When we started Heroic Fantasy Quarterly back in ’09 we had several goals; one of them was to bring a little class back into the public face of editing. We had seen one too many editor panels at conventions that turned into sad little pity parties. We vowed (and at HFQ when we vow something, blood oaths are involved) that we would not do that. Further, we would blood-eagle ourselves before we bitched, pissed or moaned about having to read slush.
In fact, from day one, we don’t even call it reading “slush”, we call it reading submissions. “Slush” is a fundamentally derogatory term. And I want everyone to know that if you see me on a panel and someone else is going on about the slush pile, I’ve got a devil on my shoulder telling me to bust their stupid face into next week. And all the angel on my other shoulder is telling me is just not to use a closed fist to do it.
With all that out of the way, I will be using the term “slush” and “slushpile” in the following article, as distasteful as it is for me to do so.
I ran into this article at New Republic: “Cheat! It’s the Only Way to Get Published.” The writer was an intern at a literary magazine and, aside from the usual denigration of, and projection onto, the writers on the slushpile, the important part is this.
I was one of four unpaid seasonal interns at my former publication before joining the staff, and one of our responsibilities was to read the piles of unsolicited submissions — the slush pile — and reject them. Once a month or so, the editors would order in pizza and beer for us and we’d spend a night in our group cubicle, dashing the hopes of foolhardy writers with money to waste on postage. I would make it through a few sentences on each one, drunkenly reading selections from the laughable worst, sign the rejection slip… and move on to the next.
Now at HFQ and most other sci-fi magazines, we need our slush; we mine it for the stories we publish. There is a certain calculus brought to bear regarding more famous authors and/or authors that we’ve worked with before, but still, from Asimov’s on down, we’re looking for diamonds in that rough. But it appears that isn’t necessarily the case at literary magazines, and what I find interesting about the article is that this particular magazine doesn’t actually mine their slush for good material:
The great majority of stories that crossed my desk were, of course, terrible. A smaller subset were mediocre; a tiny fraction were good; one was excellent; I rejected it, too. (It ended up in the Paris Review.)… The literary editor at the publication once told me that in his many years only one story had emerged from the slush pile and into print. He said it with some distaste. It hadn’t been his decision and he considered it something of a stunt. We would reject hundreds of stories at each slush session. Yet he would publish just twelve stories per year, each one from recognized writers via agents that he knew. Perhaps other publications handle their slush with more tact than ours, and some make a point of recognizing new writers, but the result is the same: The writers quite literally had no chance.
I may be making an apples to oranges comparison between literary publishing and genre publishing, and short story publishing and novel publishing. But I’ve heard of similar rejection parties at genre book publishers. In fact, whenever a book is touted as being pulled out of the slushpile, there is usually a story behind the story: the author’s won some kind of contest, or gotten an agent, or worked for years at the publishing house, or has family ties going deep into the publishing world.
If you read the New Republic article you will note that the author had much more luck with his submissions when he started pushing his position at a literary journal above his actual work (sadly, this does not seem to the case in the genre short story world…)
All this brings up the question of just what the purpose of the slushpile really is? It certainly appears that it doesn’t exist as a method to find good stories/books.
One could argue that “rising above the rest of the slush” might have a certain cache as far as advertising goes, but I don’t really buy that, especially when the vast majority of genre books published are not pulled off the slushpile, and the vast majority of book buyers neither know nor care about such things.
As always, I have a theory. I’ve heard from a number of genre people at book publishers, and they start off a lot like the author of the New Republic article — reading through the slushpile. Some of them make the claim that they “found something” in it, but usually that falls apart if you re-visit the story after getting a few drinks in them. But one thing they agree on whether sloppy drunk or stone-cold sober: they do NOT, under any conceivable circumstances, want to go back to reading the slushpile.
So my theory is that it seems that the only thing that major genre publishing houses actually use the slushpile for is as an internal disciplinary device on their interns/new hires. “You mix a damn fine Manhattan; you’ll be off the slush and dealing with real writing in no time.” “You get another goddamn hair in my latte and you’ll be back to reading slush faster than you can say ‘Mother F— A’.”
Oh, I can’t prove it, but that seems to be the only logical reason. Heck, the slushpile seems to serve as both the carrot and the stick!