A couple of weeks ago, I ranted against a Wall Street Journal article that proclaimed “The Slush Pile is Dead.” The slush pile, for those who are unfamiliar, is the name for the large amount of unsolicited writing that’s submitted for publication to magazines and web sites.
Part of the reason for my reaction to the article, honestly, is that I’m also editor of an online literary magazine called The Splinter Generation that publishes 90% of its work from the slush pile. We spend untold hours reading through these submissions. In fact, that’s part of our mission: to find really good writers who aren’t known yet and who are being ignored by the big magazines and publishing houses. So the WSJ article, in essence, was saying that all our work amounted to nothing because only The Paris Review and Random House really matter.
Which is fine. They can ignore us. Maybe our work does amount to very little. We’re still new. But the problem is that they were ignoring dozens, if not hundreds, of other, better-known projects that thrive on the slush pile. And that made me mad. So you know what I did? I broke Rumpus Rule #1 and put together a list.
I emailed lots of writers, some of whom published books and others who had only published in a few mags, granted them full anonymity, and asked them for their nominations of the best lit journals that are good about publishing a few pieces out of the slush pile in every issue. The most common nominations are below* (note: No offense intended! This is an informal list. If you thrive on slush, and your project didn’t happen to be mentioned by the people I contacted, feel free to put your info in the comments section.)
Crab Orchard Review
Cream City Review
Bat City Review
American Short Fiction
There’s more: Fictionaut is a great web site that allows authors to put their work up to be read by other writers, and lit mags have found pieces that they’ve published from it. Even HarperCollins has Authonomy, in which authors can post work to be “discovered” by agents or editors at the house. I also heard from some folks at Slush Pile Reader, a web site just out of beta, that aims to do Authonomy one better and publish the most popular stories that it’s writers put up while being a good deal more indie about it.
And though I think they really are the future, I haven’t even started with online journals, as only Blackbird was mentioned by the writers I contacted, though Monkeybicycle and Guernica are two I can think of right off the top of my head.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
But despite their condescension, the WSJ is touching on something important. Many of the authors I spoke to were worried that having big magazines and houses choose nothing from the slush pile is dangerous for the future of writing and for our culture.
Said one author, who wished to remain nameless:
“I mean, like it or not, there are very few gatekeepers to American letters, and although they are quite out of touch, the American literary public still turns to those big institutions to bring “new voices” into the world…I guess if your only goal as a writer is to be a cult figure, the you don’t give a shit about what the New Yorker is doing. But if you have dreams of a Big Literary Career, you can’t help but be frustrated by the lack of opportunities outside of the smaller to mid-range journals.
So, yeah, great numbers of journals read and publish slush. But how much does that matter on a cultural level? Maybe it’ll matter someday. Maybe, if we’re lucky, it’ll matter soon. But it matters very little today.”
Here’s an idea: Maybe it’s time everyone — from the small lit mags to the big publishing houses — agreed to open up their selection process so writers can know more about what they’re submitting to. It’d at least be a start. And editors might even get more of what they’re looking for.
*Note: This is not a list of mags that publish a large percentage of their slush pile … most receive too many submissions for that to be possible. This is a list of mags that have a good portion of each issue devoted to pieces they’ve discovered in the slush pile.