In Defense of the Slush Pile

Background: When Tin House did their whole send-a-reciept-from-a-book-store-to-get-in-our-slush-pile thing a while back, the literary blogs were aflutter as to whether slush piles were the new newspapers, i.e. obsolete. The following is a brief two-cents from John Cusick, literary agent and a founding editor of Armchair/Shotgun.

There’s been some chatter about abolishing the slush pile— a pleasant thought, especially to us who wade through it each day. But amazing talents rise from the muck, and denying this entry-point would be a sin not only of sloth but snobbishness.

My agency, Scott Treimel NY, has plucked our six highest-grossing clients (award winners all) from the pile. My first client, Michael Kinch, whose debut novel drops this September (The Blending Time, Flux. Catch it.) landed first in the slush.

Granted the majority stinks. I read a hundred queries a week, most too terrible for words. But to those who say this effort isn’t worth it, is too much work, I remind you that we work in publishing. Our job is to sit. And read.

Armchair/Shotgun has its own pile, which, if it were physical rather than electronic, would teeter seventeen stories high. We remove author names before consideration, and are, I believe, alone in this practice. The result: our authors are first-timers as well as established writers. I’m not sure why more journals don’t do this, but my guess is laziness. It’s easy to read a submitter’s bio and dismiss her writing because Suzie Q. Schoolmarm has never been published and started writing last week. Amazingly, it’s easier to dismiss a person than a manuscript.

But every slush pile, anonymous or no, is egalitarian. All are called, but few are chosen.

Hear me fellow agents and editors! You can’t find diamonds if you can’t handle dirt. A final example: Marilyn Marlow, a legendary agent of children’s literature, once pulled a manuscript from the slush pile, handwritten on loose leaf, riddled with cancelations and corrections. The author was an unpublished sixteen-year-old girl. It was the kind of artifact an agent with less vision might toss immediately— or pass around the office for laughs.

It was called The Outsiders, and the girl was S.E. Hinton.

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