Theme Essay by David Cameron
Why the Odds Are Against You—Really Against You
Once I sent a short story to a highly regarded literary journal. Less than a week later, I received a form rejection. Less than a week! (The auto response noted how much they enjoyed my piece, but I bet they say that to all the guys.) I sent the same story to another publication, even more renowned, a heartbreaking journal of staggering genius whose name makes me hum “Danny Boy.”
What’s going on? Who reads this stuff? An actual person, or some kind of cliché-searching software similar to what HR departments use to filter CVs?
As the steady drip of rejections eventually maxed out my Gmail storage, the world of literary journal publishing began to seem like a mysterious brotherhood: one part Masons, one part Teamsters.
Yet, before giving up altogether and pursuing my other dream—opening a dog-grooming salon—I decided to find out how these decisions are made. In my most hopeful dreams, I even thought I might discover the secret handshake required to get through the gate.
So follows my yearlong saga as a slush pile reader at my absolutely favorite literary journal: Tin House.
The mixed feelings I’m left with are in no way meant as a denigration of this alpha-dog magazine. But my experience is a cautionary tale for fellow pilgrims who have no idea that a reader like me is what they'll often get.
• • •
In the summer of 2010, after some email cold-calling, I connected with the slush pile master of Tin House and told her I wanted to be a reader. During the telephone screening/interview process, I was pleasantly surprised—and slightly freaked out.
On the one hand, she said she wanted, above all else, readers who loved reading. She asked lots of questions about what I read and why I read what I read.
“You’d be shocked at how many writers don’t actually read,” she told me.
She even asked me to write an essay on a recent book that rocked my world. (I chose Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and gushed like a schoolgirl.) She told me that they take the slush pile seriously, that they’re committed to discovering undiscovered authors, and that when they do, there’s much rejoicing.
“Awesome!” I said.
Then we had this exchange:
“About how many unsolicited short stories do you get a month?” I asked.
“Over a thousand. Easily.”
“How many get published?”
“Oh, I’d say about one or two every three years.”
She said this with the detached objectivity of someone accustomed to managing harsh realities. Meanwhile, I attempted some long division in my head. But I’m god-awful at math, which is good, because otherwise the writer in me might have gotten discouraged. I might have withdrawn my candidacy right then.
• • •
After a two-month lag, they set me up with an online Submishmash account and loaded twenty virgin stories into my queue. I had two weeks to filter through them.
If I clicked the “thumbs down” icon, the story was DOA, no questions asked. If I clicked “thumbs up,” I would then need to provide a written rationale explaining why the piece merited a second look.
Some stories in my queue had already been flagged with a special “return to editor” note. In these cases, I needed to submit a written evaluation despite my verdict. I suspected they had been written by brotherhood members.
Soon I felt like the publishing world’s version of a beefcake doorman standing outside the latest NYC hotspot, scouring the line of earnest hipsters, cherry-picking the lucky few.
I put my best foot forward. Following the Golden Rule, I began each story imagining me at the other end of the mouse click. On my best days, I carefully read the first three pages in a spirit of utter receptivity. At those times, you were in good hands with me.
Then there were the moments when three weeks had gone by and fifteen stories waited impatiently in my queue. That’s when I whipped out the calculator, punched some numbers, and discovered that each of these unsolicited pieces has, statistically speaking, a 0.8 in 12,000 chance of making it into the print edition.
Is this not an exercise in absurdity? No wonder I could no longer tolerate passive verbs, main characters named Brad or Nicole, and second-person POV. At those times, I just needed to clear my queue and get off the editor’s “naughty” list.
And that’s when the guilt sometimes seeped in. But only sometimes.
In a weird kind of way, the more I felt guilt, the more I found myself resenting the submitters. (Rereading that sentence makes me wince.) Experience-wise, these folks were all over the place. Some had a rather enviable publishing background, others not even close. But I can’t tell you how many cleverly titled stories began with promise only to fall apart completely—or began in utter incoherence and became more so.
Far too many kicked off in a kind of fog and then meandered through concentric circles of vagueness but with enough symptoms of literary self-consciousness that I kept waiting for a beam of clarity. It never came—and I wanted those 45 minutes of my life back.
“How many of you people—you people!—have sweated bullets over your verbs?” I sometimes demanded of my iMac, usually around 11:30 p.m on a Tuesday. “How many of you have actually shown your stuff to someone who would call you on your BS? Anyone? Hello?!”
Being a reader was turning me into a prick—but a prick with a point.
• • •
Many years ago, I dreamt of becoming a college-radio alternative rocker. (As you can tell, I follow the money.) I attended a public event hosted by a local Boston radio station. A panel of “experts”—a critic, a major label A&R guy, a booking agent—convened to critique demo tapes in front of an audience. It was broadcast live.
I showed up early, submitted my band’s cassette, and sat down among the throngs of messy-haired consignment shop patrons. Once the room was packed, the MC randomly grabbed a cassette or CD, announced the band, flipped on the music, and abruptly cut it after a few bars. Then each panelist gave an instant verdict.
A few comments were nice—a surprise—but on the whole, the honesty was brutal. “Boring!” the MC would announce after fifteen seconds, cutting the tape. Or “Predictable!” or “Vocals too late!” or “Chorus too early!”
No song was played more than a quarter of the way through. There was no Wow, there’s clearly a diamond buried somewhere in THAT rough!
At one point, the MC leaned over his mic and said, “If you think this is bad, you should see what the labels do to your stuff.”
Mercifully, my tape got lost at the bottom of the pile and was thus spared a live-radio flogging. But I left feeling thoroughly oppressed by this “instant impression syndrome”: When you make it to the gatekeeper, you have about twenty free seconds. After that, time is debt. It’s lust at first sight or nothing.
No one’s going to put in the effort to get to know the inner you, whether you’re an alt-rocker or a short story writer.
Sound unfair? It should! The slush pile, in the eyes of God, isn’t fair. You will almost certainly never get any form of consideration approximating the work you put in—even if your work was wanting to begin with.
If nothing else, slush pile reading has helped me to grow yet another layer of epidermal padding, without which no writer can make it through the submissions process intact.
• • •
I did this for a solid year, and here’s the question I asked myself the whole time: Would I want me to read me?
The answer was a definite yes/no, qualified by a maybe.
What is the motivation of a reader? Obviously, there’s no monetary compensation involved (though I did appreciate that free subscription and my name in the masthead). For me, it was a labor of love. But sometimes love is the heaviest burden of all.
I have a job, a wife, kids. Establishing space to write feels less like a regimented discipline and more like a search for illicit sex: Just get it when you can. Not to mention all that other reading I’m determined to get done before I die. Throw into the mix twenty stories twice monthly—and I fell out of love. All that was left was labor.
Every time I reflected on the soul-shattering process it can be to reveal your work to another, I knew writers like me deserved better than me. After a year, I resigned as a reader, unsure if I’d made any difference whatsoever. I didn't learn the secret handshake.
Yet, I did learn how to submit my own work a bit more strategically. For instance, I recently sent a short story to a handful of A-list journals after slaving over the first paragraph, knowing that’s my one shot. This still makes me sad, because the best part of the story, the part I’m most proud of, shows up around page 15. But after my experience with the slush pile, I suspect few readers will make it that far.
Maybe what really troubles me is the lack of resources to support reading unsolicited manuscripts or, for that matter, editing a quality literary magazine. But if the process means anything—if we believe in literary writing at all—I’m not sure there’s any other way to cull through thousands of monthly submissions. While I can't applaud the status quo, the world needs high-quality literature. It needs Tin House, the Paris Review, Narrative, all the other wonderful journals that still exist. For that reason alone, we might just need to endure a less-than-perfect system.
And ultimately, love is the right starting point.
I do recall one story that electrified me. I told the editor it was absolutely astounding. I told her they’d be crazy not to publish it. They didn’t. But I did my small part to push it through, so, maybe, in a small way, I did some good.
“Just Plain Me,” “All Work and No Play,” and “Overwhelmed” © Andrés Þór; Creative Commons license
He recently published his first short story in Carve magazine.
"Sex, candy, and rock-and-roll: the obsessions of author Steve Almond. Whether he’s recounting the humiliation of adolescent sexual exploits or exploring the relationship between chocolate and human transgression, his work always has me reckoning with my own baggage." — "Steve Almond: So Much Sensual Data to Be Mined"