It may not be possible to pinpoint the exact date when unagented fiction became a subject of scorn for commercial presses and big magazines, but let’s say the shift was concurrent with Bill Buford’s tenure as The New Yorker’s fiction editor (1995-2002), and let’s use The New Yorker as a convenient case study in the shift of attitudes toward the slush pile in literary America. The New Yorker obviously isn’t in any sense average or representative of literary publishing generally. Because of its outsized influence, however, The New Yorker’s attitude toward its slush pile has no doubt done a great deal to establish the current industry standard.
Buford openly admitted having never really considered publishing from The New Yorker’s slush pile. Today this sounds utterly unsurprising: no one conversant with the magazine even harbors the dream of being plucked from that particular pile anymore. But up to that time, the hope of being discovered in New Yorker slush—and of suddenly having a career—was a real, if distant, possibility for writers of merit. And consider the magazine’s relationship to its slush pile in the era commonly believed to have been its fiction department’s golden age: the forty or so years during which William Maxwell et al. edited Nabokov, Salinger, Cheever, Welty, and Singer, among many others. According to New Yorker writer and Maxwell protégé Alec Wilkinson, Maxwell took over slush reading duties in 1945, and in the following years he regularly accepted for publication one unsolicited story per month (italics mine). And Maxwell didn’t find merely publishable writers in the slush pile; he found previously unpublished writers now widely considered to be bona fide geniuses, if not household names, including Mavis Gallant and Shirley Hazzard.
Excuse me for pausing here, but I have to repeat: one story a month! From the slush pile! In The New Yorker! Twelve stories per year made the journey from New Yorker slush to the newsstand. Maybe that was a high-water mark, but compare that to the current yearly average of stories that make this journey (zero), and it becomes pretty difficult to believe, as so many people appear to, that the only people who have cause to gripe about the current system are disgruntled and unpublishable writers. The big-publishing game might not be rigged, but it has certainly lost a great deal of its vitality and surprise.
Obviously, between the early Maxwell era and the Buford era, the world and The New Yorker changed a great deal. By the end of Maxwell’s tenure at the magazine, the slush pile couldn’t have been anywhere near as manageable as it had been when he started. Fiction’s prominence in popular culture declined, so naturally its prominence in the magazine declined. And even as the available space for publishing fiction declined, the number of writers, thanks to all sorts of phenomena like improved living standards and the rise of the MFA system, ballooned. Then, as the Buford era approached, and word processing and communications technology transformed the practices of writing and disseminating text, the number of submissions each writer was producing increased exponentially. Buford’s contempt for the slush pile may well have been the only workable approach to what had become—well before the magazine began accepting electronic submissions—a strictly unmanageable task: sorting through a reported 50,000 yearly fiction submissions.
Now that The New Yorker accepts email submissions, it seems perfectly likely that the number of submissions it receives has doubled, tripled, or even increased by a factor of ten. Obviously, there has been no corresponding increase in the publication of unsolicited work. Here is Deborah Treisman, the magazine’s current fiction editor, perhaps accidentally revealing her attitude toward the slush pile in a Book magazine interview conducted shortly after she was named Buford’s successor (an excerpt of which interview, as well as some other background information for this post, I first came across in this lovable John Warner rant in The Morning News):
Q: Have you ever rescued anything notable from the slush pile?
A: Someone who’s submitting themselves directly to the fiction editor probably isn’t all that savvy about publishing and probably not about writing either.
Treisman has since backed away, at least publicly, from this attitude toward the magazine’s slush pile and the writers who find themselves in the unfortunate position of being in it. But the fact remains that a magazine once defined by its commitment to publishing unsolicited submissions—and which almost certainly made its greatest contributions to literature when that policy was in place—has for well over a decade been effectively closed to writers without agents.
It is hard to blame The New Yorker and the rest of the commercial publishing industry for adopting a dismissive attitude toward unsolicited submissions, given the impossibility of filtering the bewildering volume of them. At the same time, it is hard to believe that publishers who care about literature are unconflicted about relying entirely on literary agents to determine the composition of their talent pool.
Abandoning the slush pile has been an act of necessity for publishers in recent years. Submishmash wants to make that act a relic of history, and to see all publishers enjoying a vital relationship with their slush pile. It may be easier to make a magazine or book without considering a slush pile, but it will ultimately be harder, we believe, to make lasting literature in this way.