Enough is Enough: The Slushpile is Not the Enemy

Posted by @ 7:39 pm on July 20th, 2010

First I read this and then I read this, and then as we know there is the Tin House thing and Brevity is considering a reading fee to help fund honorariums and, perhaps, dissuade inappropriate submissions, which is certainly their right and I do understand where they are coming from, and finally, I read this. I’m frustrated. I can’t speak for the big fancy magazines, but for the smaller magazines such as PANK, we live and die by the slushpile. With no slushpile we would have no magazine and frankly, it would take way more time and effort to solicit writers for twelve monthly issues and a 240 page annual than it does to read submissions. Save for a handful of writers, literally, a handful, we have published the magazine exclusively via work from the slushpile or as we simply call it, the submission queue. Let me go on record as stating that even on the most frustrating days, I love reading submissions. It is what I get to do to relax and step out of my “real” life. I actually feel fucking lucky to be able to co-edit a magazine. Even when I’m reading something terrible I think, “well this is just awesomely bad,” and I feel a little thrill. I literally feel a thrill. When I stop feeling that thrill, I will take a break.

The slushpile fatigue being lamented here and there and everywhere tires me. It bores me. Please, let’s just shut up about it already. If you don’t want to deal with the slushpile, don’t have open reading periods. It really is that simple. Listening to your dissatisfaction with having to deal with the bad writers and new writers and mediocre writers who dare to submit to your magazine that is willfully accepting unsolicited submissions is about as interesting as listening to someone talk about their diet. I don’t care what you had for breakfast.

It could be said, some days, that to edit is to complain. There are days when it feels like every last thing has been expressly designed to get on your editorial nerves. I get it. I complain. I love to complain. I have practically made a hobby out of complaining. I can own that. You don’t care what I had for breakfast either, but I’ll probably tell you. It was cherry youghurt, fruit on the bottom, Dannon, for the record. The slushpile, some days, is quite deserving of complaint because it is ever present. It will never go away. It will only get bigger and bigger, especially if you, as an editor, are doing your job well. The slushpile is a force and a presence that must be reckoned with. Some days, that reckoning feels like a battle. Sometimes that battle is bloody.

As long as there are human beings on the planet there will be writers who want to be published and many of those writers will not understand what it means to be a conscientious submitter so they will send you poorly formatted work and inappropriate work and crazy work and sad work, not sad in terms of content, but sad as in wilted and pathetic work so sad that you feel the need to hold a cold compress to your forehead. You need to accept the following: you will never dissuade these writers from submitting to your magazine. You can charge $2 or $20 or $40 or make them take pictures of themselves in a rainforest holding pencils in their noses and they will jump through those hoops to send you their writing because, god bless them, they don’t know any better. They will do whatever you ask them to so they can reach, in some small way, for some measure of greatness, so they can be seen, heard, read, understood, acknowledged. Trying to fight this need, this desperate desire, is like trying to fight the rise and fall of the sun. It cannot be done.

Writers will forget to include a cover letter or otherwise ignore your guidelines. They will purge their life story in a cover letter or they will try to be funny and fail or they will be unintentionally funny. They might write an angry response or fifteen to a rejection. They might blog about your rejection and include a “Fuck you,” (true story). They might ask you to elaborate on why you rejected their story or insinuate that perhaps you didn’t carefully read their magnum opus (true story). They will send you angry notes about your lack of monetary compensation. They will withdraw a submission five times because they are still working on it. They will revise and resubmit rejected work even though you didn’t ask them to. Writers will tell you about the 111 publications where their work has appeared or they’ll mention a bunch of tiny magazines you’ve never heard of or they’ll just say, “My work has appeared in more than one hundred journals internationally,” and leave it up to you to figure out which journals they are referring to (true story). They will tell you they know their vampire story is a great fit for your 20 year old magazine when you’ve only been publishing five years and in that time have never taken up the mighty vampire. They will send a 70,000 word manuscript or a five word poem or a one word poem (true story) or ten different stories or something about Roman gladiators in space (true story). You will have to read these submissions for free, oh poor baby, having to do something you love without being monetarily compensated for it (like nearly every other editor of a literary magazine throughout the history of literary magazines) and it will take more of your time than you ever imagined and some more time on top of that. Life is rough. Some of the writing will give you chills it is so bad. Some of the writing won’t be bad but it won’t be good. It will be unremarkable and that will probably piss you off more than anything because it’s nothing. It is entirely lacking in character or soul. It’s just there, bland and inconsequential.

Once in a while, or if you’re lucky (and I feel pretty lucky) your slushpile won’t be that bad at all. It will be filled with a surprising amount of great writing and your biggest problem will be that you can only accept a fraction of that writing so your tough decisions won’t be about how to deal with the incessant and overwhelming volume of submissions. No, the difficult decisions will be about which brilliant stories and poems and other kinds of writing you will be able to take and which brilliant pieces you will have to say no to and then you’ll think about those pieces over and over again and wonder if you made the right choice and then you’ll see that story in another magazine and you’ll think, goddamn, I let that get away.

Here’s the thing though–whatever your experience with the slushpile, it is not the enemy. Writers are not the enemy. They can be frustrating but we should not be fighting them or trying to keep them away like some kind of contagion. I think we all have to stop being so goddamned condescending about the slushpile and inexperienced writers and bad writers who won’t just stay away, leaving us surrounded only by the “good” writers who do as we say.  Even with all its baggage, the slushpile is awesome. Writers think so highly of your publication that they send their words to you and nine times out of ten, they will let you publish that work for FREE. And of course, there will be the lazy writers who just pick your magazine out of Duotrope or the Writer’s Market and don’t know or don’t care about your magazine as much as they care about seeing their name in print but as most editors will admit, it’s pretty easy to spot those writers and dismiss them, so really, what are we bitching about?

This is not to say writers should be elevated on a pedestal. Don’t be ridiculous. This is not to diminish the very real challenges bigger magazines are facing with overwhelming submission queues. This is just to say that maybe we’re wasting too much energy bitching about submissions. Most of our magazines would not exist without the slushpile. Have we really forgotten this? If you don’t think the slushpile is awesome, you need a sabbatical. You need to walk away. If you cannot handle the slushpile, if you are burnt out, if your complaints outweigh the pleasures of reading unpublished work, you need to have a come to Jesus moment with yourself and come up with a better solution. The slushpile is what it is. This is what it will always be.

To summarize: the slushpile is not the enemy.