No Slush Piles: Notes From A Literary Journal Editor

by
Stephen Corey
10.12.16

Because I have spent more than thirty years reading literary manuscripts—poems, short stories, essays, and book reviews—in search of ones I’ve wanted to publish, I may well be as ill equipped as anyone to speak of overall trends among our country’s writers. For all the mounds of manuscripts I have seen, which by rough estimate total some sixty thousand stories, two hundred thousand poems, and a piddling twenty thousand essays, I have not really seen said mounds of manuscripts. I do not live in a world of vistas and horizons. I am the boy on his hands and knees, watching the progress of an ant or a ladybug on a blade of grass; I am the boy before the mirror with his finger on the tip of his nose, trying to look both at his finger and at the figure in the glass doing the same. Oh, the world is out there, without a doubt, but I have to keep it fuzzy to do my job aright. I have to keep thinking, with a nod to Satchel Paige, “Don’t look around—something might be enclosing you.”

The more we look for trends the more we find them, and the more we find them the more likely we are to overlook subversions of them—especially the more subtle examples. The important variations in a writer’s style, the ones that may prove to set him or her apart, are not always obvious at first. When I set out to read new work as an editor, my bumper sticker has to read “Ignore globally, sniff around locally.” The more of my reading past I can forget, the better. Sisyphus might have said, “One rock at a time.”

Of course, I am not saying that I have, or try to have, no memory of all I have read previously. I am made of that reading and could no more deny it than I could deny that the body below my neck, with its intakes and actions, has contributed daily to the “I” of my mind. My point is that I try to come at every manuscript with as few preconceptions as possible.

So many years ago that I can’t say just how many, other than “within the space of my time working with the Georgia Review,” I sat in a hotel room surrounded by a number of undergraduate students. Beside me was another editor—he the head person for his very prestigious literary journal, I an assistant for mine. All of us were gathered for some conference, and for whatever reason the professor/adviser to these students had arranged a discussion session in a guest room rather than a more official location.

I don’t recall the exact question asked, but I know it had something to do with procedures for handling waves of submissions. The other half of our hotel-room panel spoke up first, noting that he had a number of readers who went through the slush pile. I had of course encountered this term before, but it had never struck me the way it did in that curiously faux-intimate situation. I was immediately, deeply, silently offended—on behalf of the students, and of myself as both writer and editor. No, I thought, this is not the way to speak of the great bulk of the work that comes our way.

I did not jump into the breach, did not take my more highly placed colleague to task. I took my turn and said my say without using the denigrating phrase, but I raised no objection aloud, neither then nor for a long time afterward. Gradually, though, on a time line I cannot particularly specify, I further hardened and more consistently went public with my opposition to this misnomer for what really ought to be understood as the life’s blood—not the life’s slush—of any literary magazine genuinely intending to be fair and vital. I like to think that if Jonathan Swift were around he might dub me an Anti-slusharian, with a capital A, though I am certain some of my fellow editors might call me something like slushypriss, or maybe just self-deluder.

I am almost perversely exacting with my Georgia Review staff about every line and sentence that goes out from our office into the world, whether in a lead piece in an issue or in a locally distributed press release for a reading. However, with matters involving the conduct and thinking of said staff, I am as hands-off—some might say slack—as possible…except in this one matter: I forbid the use of the term slush pile, in writing or in conversation, and I ask my office colleagues to take into their very literary hearts and souls my reasons for creating this stricture. I do, as you might be wondering right now, allow these colleagues to say “slush pile” reactively—to explain if asked why we do not use it, or—if they are feeling braver than I was on that long-ago day—to dispute someone else’s use.

Before I go any further with “slush pile” I need to say a word about slush, with which I am intimately familiar—at least as pertains to what I think of as its most common and visceral meaning, and the meaning I believe most unkind editors have in mind when they speak. I grew up, and lived until the age of twenty-seven, within a strip of far western New York State known as the snowbelt. Winter clouds rolled across the Great Lakes, the air above which was kept relatively warm by the water, even in the cold months. Those clouds reached the eastern shore of Lake Erie, about thirty miles from my home, and the chill of the land reduced the clouds’ moisture-holding capacity. And then…whoomph! In the meadow, we can build a snowman.

Slush is the messy, mushy, gray—then gray-black, then black—detritus of snow created by Mother Nature’s up-cycles of warmth plus hundreds or thousands of tires and boots passing along streets and walkways. Slush is the coldest form of water known to humankind. Slush is grim. Slush is ugly and disgusting. Slush creates only one desire in those who are near it: to have it gone.

Please feel free to laugh genuinely and long in the face of anyone who might tell you slush pile is not a derogatory term. 

(Postscript: The pile in slush pile redoubles the nastiness via irony, because the image of a pile offers a false dignifying of the form in which slush can appear. Slush is too slushy to accumulate in a pile. What slush pile really means is “slush blob”…“slush plop”…or maybe “slush mess.” In short, “slush.”)

Here’s something from the “slush pile” of Georgia Review manuscripts I’ve had the privilege of encountering during the past twenty-five years. It’s the first sentence of “The Final Proof of Fate and Circumstance,” a story by Lee K. Abbott that came to be published thrice under the GR banner—in our Fall 1983 issue, in our fortieth-anniversary fiction retrospective in Spring 1986, and in Stories Wanting Only to Be Heard, the sixty-year best-of book compilation released in 2012 by the University of Georgia Press:

He liked to begin his story with death, saying it was an uncommonly dark night near El Paso with an uncommon fog, thick and all the more frightful because it was unexpected, like ice or a parade of gray elephants tramping across the desert from horizon to horizon, each moody and terribly violent.

Who was this guy? I had no idea. (I was brand new at the Georgia Review in 1983.) Just slush. When Abbott came around again a couple of years later, I certainly knew his name and remembered the style of his story. Would he come through again, or would he slip back under those grindingly indifferent editorial wheels? Here is the opening of “Time and Fear and Somehow Love”:

Since, as she conceived it, the letter was to be the final word on the subject, she endeavored to start slowly, then lead up to, as fine drama does, those moments of lamentation, those periods—always potent and manifold—of ruin and dismay which are like, her daddy had said once, mangy wildcats with wings.

“So,” I might have begun telling myself, “this ‘slush pile’…it looks like the place to be!”—although now I might wonder whether Abbott was slipping already, since this story’s debut in our Spring 1985 issue was followed by only a single reprise—in a retrospective issue we brought out in Spring 2011.

This Abbott guy turned out to be someone who’d had a few stories in some other magazines during the time shortly prior to his first appearance in the Georgia Review, but we could easily enough forgive ourselves for having known nothing of him or his work. Now, several books and a handful of additional GR appearances later, he stands in the foremost rank of American short story writers from the past several decades.

Here is an opening from another writer of whom I knew nothing at the time I first read these words:

I have never been touched by someone blind, but I can imagine what it would be like. She would read me like Braille, her fingertips hovering on the raised points of my flesh, then peel back the sheets of my skin, lay one finger on my quivering heart. We could beat like that, two hummingbirds, and become very still. Her hands might move across my abdomen, flick the scar below my belly button. My eyelids would flutter at her touch, and my skin dissolve into hot streams of tears. 

This is from “A Thousand Buddhas,” an essay by Brenda Miller.

So, you get the point by now, or perhaps you got it before I began. But you must trust me that many people don’t get it—that the widespread, widely accepted use of the term slush pile indicates an unjustifiable callousness about writing that in fact deserves an editor’s most excited and exacting attention—maybe not for long, but definitely for at least a few heartfelt and democratically minded moments.

I have noted fiction and nonfiction from the endless piles, and I’ll close with a poet you probably do not know, and one I had never heard of in the mid-1990s when I pulled the following work from the handful she had sent—and the hundreds of others going past me that month, the thousands that year:

Inheritance
—August 6, 1995

They begin to die early.
The first seedlings of basil and marjoram
peel yellow, curl in the already parched light.
The fiftieth summer gathers, lengthens across
a heat wave, close and unforgiving as a wish.
The dill and parsley go, then the peas.
I am twenty-five and halfway there.
The sun, grown heavy, splits ringing and blunt,
crushes the black crown of my skull, the thin
weave of muscle at my neck.
My shoulders burn for the first time, and skin
slips away from me, from the things
I try to hold: in the soft palms of hands, in
the hollow above my hip as I turn, there 
is nothing. The slow length of each limb
comes into its own ache, leaden as if I’ve been
swimming. All day I taste salt on my lip.

This August I do not return to the city
where I was born, where they will gather
the evidence and read the lists of names.
News of Hiroshima washes against me
in waves that echo seawater beating.
Thick-tongued and without a center,
I squat down in the garden among the tall
fragrant weeds grown thick in place of harvest;
I count the new dark spots on my skin
that might signal cancer, what my mother
has taught me to watch for, my
inheritance turned inside out. In
the curve beneath my ribs where it is hidden,
they blossom like wildflowers in the crying heat.

Kyoko Uchida has published twice more in the Georgia Review, in 2010 (thirteen years after her first appearance) and 2011, having sent and had work declined a number of other times along the way.  These later poems caught the attention of Robert A. Fink, editor of the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize out of Texas Tech University Press. This competition, conceived by McDonald in 1990 and judged by him until 1996, grows from its editor’s wide reading of literary magazines. Each year a small number of poets—I believe the typical number is ten to fifteen—are invited to submit book manuscripts. Uchida’s collection, Elsewhere, came out in 2012 and includes all three of the poems we ran, and the book’s biographical note’s list of journal publications places the Georgia Review first. I feel honored to have been involved with the long, slow curve of this poet’s achieving her goal of having a book: I am reminded more forcefully than usual of the obligation we at the journal have to treat all submissions equally in those first moments of reading, and I am strongly reminded that we must never think our words don’t matter—including those we use to describe the words of others.

No slush piles. 

 

Stephen Corey, editor of the Georgia Review, has worked with the journal in various capacities since 1983. He is the author of ten poetry collections as well as Startled at the Big Sound: Essays Personal, Literary, and Cultural, forthcoming from Mercer University Press in February 2017.