Tuesday, June 22, 2010


It seems like literary magazine editors spend most of their time online whining about the trials and pains of managing a slush pile. The complaints usually come in a form something like this: 1) There are too many submissions. 2) The submissions are largely inappropriate to the magazine -- the writers haven't done their homework. 3) There are far more submitters than there are subscribers; why don't writers support literature if they want to be published?

For bonus points, complain about how MFAs are creating too many writers, most of which are not "real writers," or haven't got any life experience, or just generally exist as tumors on the ass of the world, not deserving of the editor's precious time. (This argument is most often made by overpaid university journal editors and, ironically, MFAs who have never been published.)

I'll address some of those arguments in detail later, but for now I want to focus on an alternative way of looking at the slush. For me, it's been the best part of getting an MFA.

My vision of the MFA was perhaps unrealistic. I imagined coming to a place where people wrote all the time, and where they shared that writing in and out of class. I thought I would be suffused with the writing of others. In practice, you read two short stories by other students every week, you write about those stories, and then there are two more. It's a good time. It's a good way to learn. But it's hardly immersion. You also read major works by major authors. This is time-consuming and educational, but by definition it can't offer the thing I wanted most: prolonged immersion in what's being written now. Your fellow MFA students may constitute a sort of cross-section of English writing if you're lucky, but it's going to have some gaps. The same goes for any assigned readings offered by your professors.

The best way -- perhaps the only way, apart from reading a wide swath of lit mags -- to achieve the kind of immersion I wanted was in reading slush, in my case for Puerto del Sol, where I currently serve as managing editor. Before I read the slush, I was deeply ignorant. I often felt I was the only writer who did what I did. I felt as if only a narrow spectrum of the possibilities of fiction was represented in literary journals. I felt isolated from the community of writers.

Reading slush showed me a fuller range of writers than I could see by any other means. I have extremely high standards, and so most of the stories I read in the slush don't turn me on. But that's okay; it's a fact of life that most art doesn't work for most people. This is one of the things that confuses me so much about editors who resent their slush. If a story doesn't work for them, it seems like their first thought is, "How could a writer possibly send me such bad, sloppy work? They must not have done their homework! They must not have revised enough!" The funny part is that most magazines are brimming over with stories I can't stand. Some of that is a result of a genuine tendency in the "reviews" especially to reward mediocrity, but fundamentally it comes to a difference in taste. It seems to suggest that the question is less about writers not doing their work and editors not opening themselves to the possibilities of writing. Nobody should publish work they don't feel passionately about, but the anger many editors feel when they don't love a story in the slush is bewildering; of course you won't like most of the stories you read in the slush. Why should this be a cause for anger?

Most people only get to read the stories that were published -- the stories that were successful in attracting an editor's sympathies, the stories that fit a particular niche in a developing magazine. If you're reading slush, you get to read so much work that very few people see. It's not all successful. It's not all brilliant. But to really understand what's happening in writing today, you have to see the failures as well as the successes -- failures, in terms of publishing and not-publishing, actually constitute the majority of written words. Ignoring that rich body of work is something writers can scarcely afford to do.

The slush pile contains the widest variety of literary strategies, styles, and structures I've ever seen. It was through the Puerto slush pile that I found writers like Blake Butler, Matt Bell, Sharon Yablon, and, well, hundreds of others. It was through that slush pile that I found writers from India, writers from South America, writers from Europe. It's been an incredible experience, and it's helped me to understand the possibilities for my own writing and publishing more generally in a way I couldn't have imagined otherwise. I feel like I need it as a writer, or at least I need the experience I've had with it so far.

As an editor, the slush pile is essential to my work. The more stories that come to the slush, the more opportunities I have to discover incredible words, incredible writers. Solicitation and active curating are important to any literary magazine, but they're also limiting: in a very real way, they limit the magazine to the writers and writing that I can imagine within its pages. The slush pile is something beyond my imagination. It's not limited by my abilities, but by the generosity and imaginative powers of a community of writers.

And every well-intentioned submission is a compliment. People seem to forget this, but it's true. Each and every one is a gift.

Which is a long way of saying, I hope you'll submit to us soon.


  1. Mike,

    I just love listening to you and Tracy write about writing and about slush. I will probably say more at some later point.

  2. But aren't you basically sidestepping the question of whether there's a moral issue -- or at least an issue of authenticity -- in the slush pile? Let's face it, some enormous percentage of the people who call themselves writers should probably be examining what they mean to do with their lives and find some more productive way to spend their time. It reminds me of the Bukowski episode where his live-in goes to her poetry workshop and reports that one of the regulars (whose anti-Catholic sketches have them all in stitches) has lost his cushy job driving a delivery truck. "The post office is hiring," says Bukowski, who works there. "Oh, no," says the live-in, "he's too sensitive to work for the post office." I won't dispute that if you choose to go the MFA route and somehow make a career in publishing, you'd better not be overfastidious about slush. But working in publishing isn't the same thing as being a real writer -- cf Eliot, whose stuff looks worse by the year. (Indeed, the people who got him his job at Faber and Faber seem to have felt that he was too sensitive for the real job he had.) People who write for the slush pile and complain about endless rejection should probably rethink their goals in life at some point -- cf Literary Rejections On Display's blog. Saying these people just have a different esthetic doesn't solve the problem, as far as I can see.

  3. Well, to address your comment backwards, I'd suggest there simply isn't a problem when it comes to slush. Probably some people do genuinely waste their time with slush. There are some who, upon being rejected, submit more of the same to the same places within the hour. It's annoying, perhaps, but I don't consider it a problem for editors. I don't think it's a problem for individuals or society either. It is very difficult for me to suggest that anyone shouldn't be writing. Writing is an activity, just like reading, gardening, or stamp collecting. It's a valuable thing people can do with their time. The fact that they then experience the urge to try to publish that writing seems to me a healthy outgrowth of wanting to write. There are many ways that people misspend their potential; writing, being an activity where you have to think, remember, and observe well your experiences and surroundings strikes me as one of the less problematic. Reading the slush, then, is not a question of trying to get people off the path that's wrong for them. It's a question of meeting whatever art they've managed to produce (a difficult thing for any of us to attempt) with a basic level of receptivity and sincere appreciation. The moral imperative belongs to we who read the slush rather than the writers who produce it.