Friday, March 22, 2013

The Truth of the Slush Pile

A recent article by David Cameron published by The Review Review poses an intriguing concept: the writer took a story printed in The New Yorker, supposedly THE magazine when it comes to literary short fiction, and submitted it to other magazines as part of an experiment to see if the story was empirically "good."

That is, would all the other magazines jump to accept the cream of the crop story on their desk?

Answer: not a one.

It should be noted that not a single one of those Top Tier or Second Tier literary magazines sent him a rejection saying this was already published in the biggest magazine in the country, who do you think you're trying to fool?

Not a one.

What does this say about literary magazine publishing? Three things:
  1. People who buy into the idea that there is a TOP magazine for short fiction are buying into a myth. There is no empirical standard for a "good story." 
  2. Not everyone who reads fiction reads the same magazines. But we should have already known this, otherwise there wouldn't be more magazines published each month than any person could possibly have time to read. 
  3. Making it to the top of the slush pile is one part good craft, one part interesting story, one part dumb luck.
"Slush sucks," Cameron says. It's a good summation. In my editorial experience, it's all about hitting the right editor on the right day with a story they're going to want to fight for. If yours is the third ornithologist with marital issues story they've seen that day, they're not going to cut you any slack. If they've just lost a family member, your piece on death that starts crass and ends poignantly isn't going to be read all the way through. There's a lot about the slush pile and the editor that you can't control or even predict.

Although the bigger the magazine or anthology I worked on, it mattered that a story ended up with the right editor eventually, but it almost mattered more that it first was shuffled to the right slush reader who read it on the right day while in the right mood and found themselves so taken with the story that they wanted to fight their editor and the other slushers to see the story got printed. When I've slushed for larger operations, I've found stories that I've passed up to the lead editor because they were good enough for a second read, or because they were my editor's "thing" even though I didn't particularly care for it. I've also passed stories on up with the note You're going to publish this one! It wasn't a threat. It was a promise. And it came true.

How do you find the right slusher? The one who's going to write the note that says publish this, who then campaigns for your story at the editorial meeting? You don't find her. At every magazine I've worked on, stories were assigned randomly to slushers.

But this is the mechanics of the slush pile, not the truth. 

The truth is that catching the right editor on the right day when she's in the right mood doesn't even touch on the fact that what each of us considers a "good short story" differs. It's not empirical. If it was, there would be only one magazine in the country and we would all read it and slobber with love over each word it printed.

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