Writers and wannabes

Readers respond to Patricia Chui's "Confessions of a Slush Pile Reader" and an interview with author Dan Simmons.

By Letters to the Editor

Published March 1, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Read "Confessions of a Slush Pile Reader.

Work can be such a distraction from lunch and self-adoration. To protect Ms. Chui from being the Elie Wiesel of editorial assistants, Western civilization must adopt the following aesthetic standards:

1. Effective immediately: No manuscripts will be considered without Manhattan postmarks.

2. To curtail its popular abuse, literacy should be limited to Ivy Leaguers. (Exceptions can be made for graduates of Oxford, the original Cambridge and the Sorbonne.)

Unfortunately, these rules would not allow Ms. Chui to be published. (She only went to a state university.) Her career, however, does indicate a third rule for publishing ...

3. Be an editorial assistant. Once you cultivate connections and clique loyalties, the publishing caste will print your tantrums and tripe.

-- Eugene Finerman

Ms. Chui has confirmed what many writers, and indeed much of the public, have come to believe about the publishing industry. It is soulless and intellectually dishonest, if not downright mean. The dramatic increase in small presses and even self-published authors can, in part, be attributed to the quality of the gatekeeper at the publisher's door.

But, really, not much has changed in many years -- Melville knew that, as well as Dickinson, Hawthorne and Mr. Clemens, just to name a few. I admire publishing companies who tell the writer up front that they will not read unsolicited submissions and leave it at that.

-- L.M. Young

I have a lot of sympathy for Patricia Chui, and all I can say is that she should be incredibly thankful that her company didn't publish science fiction. You don't know what horror can be until you've had to slog through the fanfic-infested bowels of a science fiction magazine or anthology slush pile.

By the way, is it too late to point out that International Slushpile Bonfire Day is next month, and that the organizers are looking for kindling?

-- Paul T. Riddell

Patricia Chui was dead on. When will aspiring writers realize that research of various markets and adherence to standard submission practices will get them farther than distinguishing themselves via infantile and annoying behavior?

Everyone thinks they have a story. Everyone thinks they can outwrite Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, which points out the public's general lack of respect for the craft.

Slush piles are a great, though patience-taxing, way to retain some level of egalitarianism in the publishing world. There are more jerks than great discoveries waiting, but I say it's still worth it.

-- Jeb Gleason-Allured

After reading Patricia J. Chui's "article," I was left feeling quite confused. Perhaps the redeeming value of the piece was lost on me, but I am trying to understand the enlightened purpose of publishing such a sour-natured manifesto? I know that life is hard and that we all go around harboring our own personal swarm of petty resentments -- those lovely little gems of self-aggrandizement generally had at the unfair expense of others -- and I was just wondering if Salon had embarked on an ambitious sociological crusade of universal talk therapy. Or if this protracted gripe just slipped by the editors.

Since I'm all for participating in the prurient, I just want to make sure that I did not overlook Ms. Chui's deeper purpose before I submit my own litany of personal injustices for Salon's consideration.

-- David Rinker

I, too, was once a slush pile reader for a major New York publisher. My bailiwick at the time was science fiction, and let me tell you, Patricia Chui's experiences ring with a remarkable familiarity. The one outlet that those of us in the science fiction community had that she apparently never did was the chance to Share the Awfulness publicly. Oh, Patricia passed her star slush to her co-workers. Among the SF literati (never say "sci-fi," always say "ess-eff"), slush is the stuff of legend and laughter.

First, there's the legend: "The Eye of Argon," a piece of slush so bad that it's read at science fiction conventions across the country, often as a midnight event, sometimes in competitions seeking maximum dramatic performance, always as live entertainment. ("Prepare to embrace your creators in the stygian haunts of hell, barbarian!") Read the complete "Eye of Argon."

Then, there's the laughter. Often at science fiction conventions, you'll find a programming item called "It Came From the Slushpile" or some such similar title. There you'll find editors regaling fans with cover letters or quotes from the worst slush they've received that year. (Names are never revealed; even editors aren't that cruel.) These programs are huge favorites with science fiction fans, partly because they're often hilarious, and partly because the attendees harbor the secret conviction that their own fledgling writing will never be bad enough to be aired publicly.

In the audience's laughter, the editor gets confirmation that she was right all along. That's the lovely certainty these programs offer. Oftentimes, an editor doesn't really know whether the book she's acquired will be well received until it's published. At a slush pile reading, she's getting firsthand confirmation that rejecting the work was the right thing to do -- and she's getting applauded for it.

-- Janna Silverstein

Read "The Outsider."

I enjoyed this article tremendously. What's fascinating to me about it is that all of them -- Wolfe, Updike, Mailer, Irving, Roth, Bellow and these two, Sindler and Simmons -- chauvinistically evade what can only be obvious to them: that contemporary American fiction that is both marketable and literary is being produced more by women than men these days. This is beautifully reflected in Simmons' description of the debate: "the knock-down, drag-out hissy-fit bitch brawl." Simmons falls into the age-old habit men have of calling other men "women" when they really want to be insulting. But of course it isn't a cat fight, it's a pissing contest, and none of them can win because their writing is elitist (in the case of Irving, et al.), derivative (in the case of Wolfe) and immaterial (in the case of Simmons). More important, it doesn't appeal to that half of the population that makes up the current majority of American readers: women.

-- Tamra Horton

I think much of what is considered serious fiction nowadays is overwhelmed with what one could call a bunch of literary game-playing.

Fiction is a game we play with the pieces and elements of our lives, changing them around, retooling them with the ultimate purpose of taking ourselves outside, beyond what we have previously thought, felt or experienced, or maybe exploring what we have lived through in greater depth.

Depth is the key. The audience must be able to reconstruct, in a timely fashion, meaning and understanding from the work. There must also be an element of surprise in addition to all that, an element of there being unexpected but relevant meaning waiting with every turn of the page.

Managing the boundary between giving people a world that they don't have to beat their collective head against a wall to experience properly, and one that they don't experience in full depth or full knowledge until the end, or even after, is the task of any good, much less great writer.

Sometimes writers get so enamored with playing games with the form, to change what people know, when they know it (often an essential task in telling a good story), that they forget that at some point, people have to know whatever it is that is necessary for the story to continue with the audience still riding the stream of discovery within the text.

Otherwise, the reading of the novel becomes merely the duty of some professor of literature who has devoted his or her life to being able to decode the material, unlike the audience in general.

In essence, I think writers should let as many people in the game as they can, and then win that game fairly. Then they have respect from the audience that is true and based on something fundamentally more concrete than a code for literary specialists.

-- Steve Daugherty

I read "A Man in Full." I enjoyed it and I think I learned something. The parts of the book that I liked the least were the chapters that were obviously the product of Wolfe's beloved "research." As a novelist, he is slightly better than Stephen King, who makes everything up. Novelists should take Gore Vidal's advice: "Write what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect: that is the only way out of the dead end of the Serious Novel which so many ambitious people want to write and no one on earth -- or even on campus -- wants to read."

-- Sean Griffin

Letters to the Editor

MORE FROM Letters to the Editor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------