Sunday, November 8, 2009

More on the Slush Pile

I want to talk about something that’s kind of a sensitive subject, a subject I’ve been avoiding talking about for some time because, while I think it’s extremely illuminating when it comes to the inner workings of literary journals, it may make a particular literary journal that I used to read for look bad.

So I’m going to start by pointing out that I don’t think that this practice is uncommon at all, particularly not amongst the journals that are run by MFA programs, which many literary journals are. And I would also add that even those literary journals that don’t technically do these sort of slush pile parties are still probably making decisions based on the same kinds of variables and gut reactions (that’s right, I said “gut” and not “visceral.” You know why? Because I’m not a pretentious a-hole). And finally, I would remind you that though this certainly doesn’t seem an effective way to wade through the slush pile, I don’t know that there is an effective way. The slush pile is massive and is ever growing; the people who have to read submissions simply do not have the time to give every single submission a fair chance. It’s a sad truth about the publication world.

The way the slush pile party works is this: all the editors and readers for a journal get together and the stacks and stacks of unread submissions are placed in front of them on a table. They have got to get that slush pile knocked out because more submissions are arriving every day and the older submissions simply have to be decided on before the pile gets any larger. So they dive in. They work through submission after submission as quickly as possible, trying to move on to the next and the next in the hopes of finishing and being able to leave at some reasonable hour. Which means, as you can imagine, not actually reading most of the submissions all the way through (not the prose ones, at least). It means reading every submission looking for a reason, any reason at all, to stop reading and reject. And many submissions, believe me, don’t get more than their first page read. Many submissions don’t get read beyond their first few sentences.

But this is a social event as well as a job. That’s why they call it a “party.” Sure, the term is sarcastic, but even as it is it’s also kind of serious. This is a chance for a bunch of friends to get together and share with each other what is normally very solitary work. There is a loud din of chatter going on during the entire event, and it’s very difficult to actually focus on reading through all that noise.

But what really depressed me the first time I went to one of these events wasn’t just the fact that submissions were not getting read carefully, that there was so much noise it would have been difficult to read something all the way through even if you had the time to. What made me almost want to give up was the fact that one of the major ways that the readers socialized with each other was by making fun of the submissions. (Again, I remind you: this, I am absolutely certain, is common practice. I can’t even count the times I’ve read about an editor who claims that almost everything in the slush pile is terrible. This is a sort of making fun, as is that fabled “wall of shame” we’ve all heard about, where editors will pin up on the wall, as a joke, some really terrible submission or cover letter.)

Now sometimes there really are truly terrible submissions. Some submissions are just asking to be made fun of. But some of them aren’t. Most of them aren’t. Most of them are well written, interesting stories or poems that are getting made fun of because the reader isn’t reading carefully. The other people in the room laugh along with the initial reader, who perhaps stops to read a sentence aloud, and they’re laughing not because it’s a terrible sentence but because the sentence is being offered to them as a joke. Because they understand that they’re supposed to think it’s terrible, and so they do.

I don’t know that there’s any absolutely foolproof way to guarantee that your work makes it through the slush pile alive. I suggested last week that one trick is to make sure you’re doing something new, but even then I think whether your submission gets read fairly probably has more to do with luck than anything else. But here’s the bright side: when you do get rejected, you shouldn’t take it personally. I know I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again but seriously, rejections don’t mean much in the big picture. Acceptances are all that really matter, and maybe rejections that actually give you personal feedback or encouragement. Form rejections, though? Just brush them off. Throw them out or file them away or nail them to your wall or burn them in a primal ritual, whatever your method is, but whatever you do, don’t let them get you down.


Justus said...

I think this is a really important thing to keep in mind. It's unfortanate that submissions often don't get a fair read, but it's also probably unavoidable. And the more we remember that our work can be rejected for nearly any reason--it wasn't even read or they just accepted something similar or the reader was in a bad mood that day because his dog threw up on the floor last night, so he wasn't going to like anything--the less likely we are to beat ourselves up about those rejections.

But I also think the slush pile party attitude is one of the negatives of the MFA world and the world of literature in general. So much comes down to personal taste, but many people think that their taste is good and others' are bad so what they don't like is terrible. But, again, that's probably unavoidable. I'm sure I'm as guilty as other writers of sometimes having that attitude.

I often wonder, though, if there might be better strategies for running workshops and such to minimize that personal taste issue, to emphasize individual writers' goals rather than each member of workshop offering suggestions about how to make the piece more like what they would want to read or write. I wonder how effective it might be if each workshop submission were accompanied by a statement of purpose where a writer describes what he was attempting so readers can fairly judge how successful the attempt was rather than assuming the writer was trying for something else entirely. Of if instead of the old workshop policy where the writer has to remain silent and listen to feedback, what if the writer had a moment to explain themselves prior to any discussion? Would that merely result in defensiveness, or could that help readers to refine their critiques?

Ashley Cowger said...

That is so funny because I was just talking about that - that workshop methods should be altered to allow the writer to guide the discussion a bit more - with some people the other day. We were talking about how frustrating it can be when a workshop goes off on a twenty minute discussion that ends up being worthless because it has nothing to do with the writer's intentions. Maybe when different people in the workshop have different guesses at what the writer's intentions were, they should stop and ask the writer before the discussion continues.