The slush pile, a slippery slope?

January 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

One of the most basic jobs in any publishing house—usually reserved for junior editors or outside readers who come in once or twice a week—is sifting through and sampling the ‘slush pile’: that tidal wave of novels and memoirs and diatribes about the pyramids or intergalactic travel and conspiracy theories and poems from the school of Ella Wheeler Wilcox  .  .  . It is, almost invariably, dispiriting and unproductive work, though an essential part of the publishing process: most of the offerings are irremediably bad, and instantly recognisable as such, . . . writes Jeremy Lewis (Kindred Spirits, page 63)

Editors know when they are reading the work of a literary incompetent. Jeremy Lewis (page 65) instances some give-away turns of phrase that herald a hopeless case (‘I’ll never forget the day’ or ‘What a character Jack was!’ or ‘How we all laughed!’).

Slush piles seem such a joke. If editors are so unlikely to come across anything good on  slush piles, why bother about them at all? In more leisured days, Charles Monteith read tatty submissions like William Golding’s—what was later called—The Lord of the Flies. Charles Monteith took a tolerant view of the manuscript which was yellowing at the edges and contained, I believe, rejection letters from other publishing houses (see John Carey’s William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies).

Today, a typographical error in a submission might be excuse enough for the editor to cast it aside. How nervous we, unpublished writers, are when we package up our submissions. We don’t feel we can use an envelope that, although unused, is creased. We certainly can’t send out a submission for a second time because it is slightly dog-eared. Oh no, we have written the editor’s address aslant. Should we write it out again on another envelope?

Never before has so much advice on how to write been given to so many who have paid so much for it. And yet all the advice, the master classes, and the MA courses do not result in publishable material. And these unpublished writers persist in learning nothing and continue to inundate editors with stuff that belongs more on a manure than a slush pile. Can this be true?

Are all these writers really so hopeless and so unteachable? Are there so many of them? If I am competing with people who write: ‘She bit her lower lip and licked her upper lip’*,  why aren’t editors delighted to see something as sane as my sample chapters?

Seeing is believing. Would any editors dare to allow me to look at their slush piles?

*‘She bit her lower lip and licked her upper lip’—cited in publishing parody ‘Happiness’ as an example of a typically awful slush pile line. Anna Frame (Acting Head of Publicity at Canongate) on Twitter  (@annaframe,  3rd January last)

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